Monday, February 11, 2008

Chile Government Endorses the HidroAysen Project - Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) becomes rubber stamp window dressing to appease public

The highly controversial HidroAysÈn dam project received a major boost from Chile’s government late last week. After long reserving judgement on the issue, the Michelle Bachelet administration – much to the chagrin of the project’s many opponents – now appears to endorse the estimated US$4 billion venture.

Last Thursday, Energy Minister Marcelo Tokman joined Interior Minister Edmundo PÈrez-Yoma in announcing a series of measures aimed at alleviating Chile’s current energy crisis. In recent months electricity supply problems have been exacerbated by falling water levels in the nation’s reservoirs and by the closure of a major generating plant in Region V. Among other things, the ministers announced a two-week extension of daylights savings time and called on electricity providers to reduce voltage by 10 percent.

Failing to mention that almost 40% of Chile's electricity goes to the foreign owned mining industry.

But while the announcements themselves came as no surprise, PÈrez-Yoma’s response when questioned about the HidroAysÈn project certainly did. “Do you support pushing forward with the AysÈn dams?” a reporter asked him. “Yes, I’m for it… Of course I am. I think so. With all due respect to the environmental issue,” the interior minister answered.

Leaving little room for interpretation, PÈrez-Yoma on Friday reiterated his support for the project. “What we have is water and we need to take advantage of it… We ought, with as much energy possible, to push forward with construction of the HidroAysÈn reservoir system,” he said.

HidroAysÈn, a joint entity created by Spanish/Italian electricity giant Endesa and Chilean energy company Colb·n, plans to construct five massive hydroelectric dams in Chile’s far southern Region XI, an area also known as AysÈn. Slated for the pristine Baker and Pascua Rivers – the region’s two largest – the project would generate an estimated 2,750 MW of electricity, roughly equivalent to 20 percent of the nation’s current overall generating capacity.

Backers of the project say it would go a long way toward meeting Chile’s growing appetite for electricity (foreign owned mines), which is said to be increasing by more than 6 percent annually. Also, say proponents, the Baker and Pascua Rivers represent a clean, renewable and 100 percent Chilean source of energy that unlike natural gas and petroleum – which Chile imports from abroad – are not subject to international price and supply constraints.

The project, however, is being hotly contested by a coalition of Region XI residents, Chilean environmentalists and NGOs in both the United States and Spain. Critics say the dams will destroy the pristine Baker and Pascua rivers and set the stage for an all out “looting” of Patagonia. Chile ought instead to invest in non-conventional, renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, argue leading dam critics like Juan Pablo Orrego of the Santiago-based NGO Ecosistemas.

“Chile is a country that’s exceptionally rich in terms of renewable energy sources. Exceptionally rich. We could have solar energy in the north, wind energy throughout the entire country, geothermic energy from top to bottom, and tidal generators. But so far in Chile nothing’s been done with all these renewable energy sources. We’ve also done nothing in terms of efficiency,” Orrego said during a recent press conference in Santiago.

Before the moving ahead with the project, HidroAysÈn must first gain approval from the government’s National Environmental Commission (CONAMA). The company has said it will officially enter into the approval process as early as next month, when it plans to submit an Environmental Impact Study (EIS). Critics of the project will then have 60 days to assess the EIS and submit their own data and observations. From there the decision rests solely in the hands of CONAMA. .

Until now, the Bachelet government has been mostly quiet on the issue. Environment Minister Ana Lya Uriarte, for example, said repeatedly that the government will not offer an opinion until after the project has gone through the requisite bureaucratic channels. That no longer appears to be the case.

Not surprisingly, the government’s about-face has raised alarm bells among HidroAysÈn’s environmental critics. Calling for the interior minister’s resignation, environmentalist Patricio Rodrigo of the Chilean Patagonia Defense Council said PÈrez-Yoma’s stance inappropriately biases CONAMA’s environmental assessment process – a process that, in the final analysis, is political. The interior minister, he pointed out, has authority over the nation’s various regional governors who in turn preside of CONAMA’s regional offices.

Socialist Party Sen. Alejandro Navarro had a similar reaction. “We have a process of interventionism with it comes to environmental evaluation processes. Politics are clearly emphasized over technical concerns,” he said.

PÈrez-Yoma’s statements also received a stern rebuke from activists in AysÈn. “I feel disillusioned with this government, which claims to represent the citizens,” said Miriam Chible, president of a Coyhaique-based organization called the Private Corporation for the Development of AysÈn. By commenting on a project that hasn’t even entered into the environmental assessment process, the interior minister is essentially bypassing the laws, she explained.

(Did they expect something different? Endesa Strategy & Tactics I – Revisiting the Ralco & Pangue Hydroelectric Projects on the Rio Bio Bio )

“I’m a business woman, but regardless of my concerns and needs, I must follow the laws. But with his recent statements, PÈrez-Yoma is suggesting that depending on our particular visions, we shouldn’t have to follow the law… It’s pathetic to hear something like that in a country that claims to be legally responsible and respectful,” said Chible.

Here is the full article.