Fracking or wrecking? Oil drilling in the Algarve

Few things are more disgusting than sandy beaches covered in oil. Could this happen in the Algarve when the planned oil and gas drillings go ahead? Opponents fear the petroleum industry will wreck this region. Enjoy the Algarve investigates.

See the original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine June 2016

Intro image by BrianSpring

Most of us only think of oil when we season a salad, spend a day in the sun or need fuel for our car. Indeed, the Algarve has the best olive oil, a serious need for sun protection (better get that factor 40 ready when going to the beach) and not that cheap petrol compared to the rest of Europe. But, as it turns out, it also has other oil. You know, that gross stuff that leaks out of tankers, killing birds and polluting beaches, causing ecological disasters when exploding as happened with the Deepwater Horizon in 2010. Or, if you look at it from a different point of view: that amazing stuff that makes the world go round, bringing in loads of money and development.

Planned drilling: on- & offshore contracts signed

Opinions differ, but whatever you think, fact is that licences have already been granted and contracts have been signed, both for on- and offshore (meaning: on land and in the sea) drilling. As petroleum companies are currently in the exploration phase, this is the actual situation:

1. Onshore there have been contracts awarded to Portfuel for the concessions ‘Aljezur’ and ‘Tavira’. Although these names indicate only small councils, this area actually covers more than 90% of the Algarve. Currently the Portuguese Parliament has requested a legal opinion from the Attorney General regarding the viability to cancel these awards.

2. Offshore, the ENI/Galp consortium has applied to DGRM to drill an exploratory well off the Aljezur coast in the Alentejo Basin. This consortium already has concession licenses from Sagres to Sines.

3. Offshore, the Repsol/Partex (Gulbenkian Foundation) consortium has indicated that they intend to drill an exploratory well off the coast of Faro in October 2016 in the Algarve basin. Currently this consortium has concession licenses for all the sea area from Sagres to Vila Real de Santo António.

4. The ENMC has indicated that they will be inviting applications to eight new tenders that they are busy working on. One of them is in the Algarve basin. Furthermore, the ENMC is currently finalizing negotiations with Kosmos Energy for another concession in the Alentejo basin.

The opposition: “Portugal’s people will pick up the tab”

Those are big companies with big plans. Some people aren’t that happy about these developments though. Those opposing the oil drilling in the Algarve include Ocean Care, PALP (Plataforma Algarve Livre de Petróleo) and especially ASMAA. Leading campaigner of the Algarve Surf and Marine Activities Association (ASMAA) is Laurinda Seabra (61). For Laurinda, the battle against oil drilling is a personal one. “I love the Algarve and I’m deeply concerned that when -not if!- things go wrong, it’ll be the people of Portugal that will pick up the tab. This will come in various forms; economic, health and safety. In addition there’ll be serious risks for the environment, which in turn will have a devastating impact on local economies through increased threats to job losses, human health and even to local infrastructure.”

A mechanical engineer, Laurinda has a background in the oil industry. Although she has Portuguese parents, she’s lived most of her life in South Africa, where she worked for the petrochemical and mining industry. “Knowing as much as I do, could I stand still and do nothing? By saying it’s someone else´s problem? No, I couldn’t…” She explains: “On arrival in Portugal, one area that raised serious concerns from both a technical and safety point of view, was observations on construction standards. We saw first-hand that these observations failed to meet the standards we were used to. Add to that the fact that when things go really wrong in Portugal, no real action is taken. In the industry in South Africa standards and controls are more stringent, but even then there are always some risks, and accidents do happen. Keeping that in mind, these are serious factors for concern. Now, the oil industry is nothing like the construction industry; in fact the risks here are much higher, as are the consequences when something goes wrong.”

Fracking: 6oo chemicals

These consequences include for example a disruption of whale migration, beach pollution and damage to the sea floor (for more, check out ASMAA’s website). A major concern is that the licences that are already given out in the Algarve cover fracking. This is clearly stated in the onshore contracts and by omission in the offshore ones. Fracking, also known as hydraulic fracturing, is a controversial technique. It’s the process of drilling and injecting fluid into the ground at a high pressure in order to fracture shale rocks to release the natural gas inside. Although fracking makes it possible to access oil and gas resources that are difficult to reach, it isn’t without risks. Fracking fluid contains up to 600 chemicals, some of them toxic such as lead, uranium, radium and mercury. During the process, and also when fracking waste is dumped, these chemicals contaminate the ground water. Some say this technique causes earthquakes. Furthermore, huge amounts of water are needed for fracking, making it not very environmentally friendly (illustration of hydraulic fracturing and related activities below by US Environmental Protection Agency).

Out of all the planned activities, the most urgent threat considered by ASMAA is the drilling of the exploration well(point 2 above) which could start on July 1. Plans are to sink a test well 46,5km off the Aljezur coast, opposite from praia da Arrifana, with drilling due to go to depths of 1.070 metres. No more information about what this exploration drilling actually means and how it will look was given. Laurinda: “The only information we have is that they’ll use the drill ship Saipem 12000 (which belongs to ENI, side note picture by John A. Konrad V). The request was for 46 working days, but it could be longer. We’re busy preparing a request for information from DGRM, but the whole process is clouded in a veil of secrecy in spite of all the allegations that they’re being transparent. Guess their interpretation of transparency and ours is not the same!”

Cruise tours to oil rigs?

Seeing as the exact plans are unknown, so is the future of the Algarve. Last year Portuguese designer Bruno Fonseca painted a rather grim picture of this with his fake company Oilgarve. On offer were boat trips to see the oil rig up close and RAPSOL concerts. The ‘clean oil industry’ would create jobs, and support youngsters who’d choose a career in engineering and science. It soon turned out all this was a hoax, part of a contemporary art exhibition in Aljezur which ran in April and May 2016. The poster for this exhibition? A yellow duck covered in black oil (turn the image around and the message becomes even clearer: a middle finger against the planned drilling).

But behind the absurd ideas of the fake marketing company in favour of oil exploration in the region, whose tag line was ‘Um Algarve com futuro’ (An Algarve with future), lies the serious message of creating awareness. As Bruno stated about the planned oil drilling in the weekly newspaper Barlavento: ‘People always think these things won’t happen. That it’s just rumours. But contracts have been signed and testing will start. When will they believe it? Only when they see a platform in the ocean?’ If so, then it’ll probably be a bit too late for changes. Unlikely as it might seem that anyone would want an oil rig to ‘improve their sea view from the beach’, could this be how the Algarve looks like in 2050? Fingers crossed it won’t.

(Picture below by Nandaro shows Devereux Lagoon in Goleta, Santa Barbara County, California, USA, with an oil platform between the lagoon and the Channel Islands)

Green energy: sun, wind & water

ASMAA’s Laurinda keeps on protesting and has set her hopes on a more environmental future. “The Algarve enjoys the perfect conditions to invest in alternative energies. I’m of the opinion that investments would be better applied into developing solar, wind and tidal/wave energy projects, rather than getting involved in the declining fossil fuel industry,” she explains. “It’s an opportunity for Portugal to be a green energy leader in Europe; I wouldn’t like to see a real opportunity for development and leadership being lost.”

The petrol companies would probably discard her ideas as too alternative or hippy, but fact is that in early May 2016, Portugal ran entirely on renewable energy for four days straight. Steps towards a more sustainable future have already been taken as the percentage of renewable energy used in this country rose from 26% in 2013 to 50.4% in 2015. Currently only 1.2% of Portugal’s electricity is generated from solar power (graphic below shows figures for April 2016). With an average of 300 sunny days a year in the Algarve, there might be room for improvement here. Maybe it’s time to tell those big petrol companies where one should stick its oil: on places where the sun does shine. But in that case make sure it’s at least SPF 40!


See the original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine June 2016

Posted in Features.