Oxy resumes work on controversial Colombian project

Occidental of Colombia, a unit of Occidental Petroleum Corp., Los Angeles, reactivated exploration activities on the Sirir�lock, within the former Samor�roject, on May 16. A court injunction had halted exploration activities in this promising zone of the Colombian plains foothills in March.


BOGOTA�Occidental of Colombia, a unit of Occidental Petroleum Corp., Los Angeles, reactivated exploration activities on the Sirir�lock, within the former Samor�roject, on May 16. A court injunction had halted exploration activities in this promising zone of the Colombian plains foothills in March.

Empresa Colombiana de Petr�leos (ECOPETROL), the Colombian state oil company, postulates that oil reserves in the area could total 1.4 billion bbl, making it one of the most prospective in the country. Work is to resume immediately and, according to Alberto Calder�n, president of Ecopetrol, �The pickaxes are literally waiting to dig in.�

Colombia's Ministry of the Environment issued an environmental license at the end of 1999 for the area.

On Mar. 29, a Bogot�ourt awarded the U�wa indigenous people a temporary preventative exploration suspension order. Well site and access road preparation had been underway there since the beginning of the year. Occidental has also returned 75% of Samor�o the government and renamed it as Sirir�The company is to drill the first wildcat well there on the 14.8-hectare Gibraltar prospect area.

The indigenous people argue that exploration activities in their vicinity and lands would be detrimental to the community�s survival. In addition, they were not included in a consultation process on exploration activities in the area, which they consider as part of their tribal territory.

Occidental of Colombia, ECOPETROL, and other government agencies immediately appealed the court injunction. The Bogot�uperior Court finally lifted the directive May 15. Amongst other issues, the court considered that suspension of exploration in Sirir�ould enormously harm national interests.

Turning point
The recent court decision, and the previously issued environmental license, indicate a major turnaround for Occidental, and for Colombian petroleum exploration. Calder�n said, �This sentence is very favorable and important for the country...I would request the U�wa to respect its legality."

The recent Court decision reiterated that Gibraltar is outside the nearby U�wa indigenous reservation and thus has no legally recognized impact on the indigenous community. The Ministry of the Interior had previously issued a certificate certifying no indigenous presence in the area. Also, in 1998, the government issued a decree eliminating the need to consult with indigenous communities when projects are developed nearby but outside their legalized lands.

At their closest points, the Gibraltar area and U'wa reservation are a full kilometer apart; thus, the project is not subject to community consultation requirements. Much of the former Samor�lock had overlapped U�wa territory.

Last year, the Colombian government significantly expanded indigenous lands, thus protecting traditional cultural integrity and delimiting the zone where petroleum development could take place.

Since 1995, Occidental�s exploratory activities have been subject to intense resistance from U�wa communities in similar areas. The U�wa brought petroleum exploration in the zone to a virtual standstill during most of the 1990s.

According to ECOPETROL, Sirir�lock has a 20% success rate. If reserves are found, additional development is expected. "Good neighbor� policies gathered from international experience on development projects and indigenous communities would be implemented, such as those of Papua New Guinea and the Peru's Camisea project.

Colombia desperately requires a major push to shore up its public finances. Petroleum is one sector in which such a recovery is possible, but only a few large prospects remain. Faced with exploration at a virtual standstill until recently, the looming need to import gasoline, a dangerously faltering economy, and an undeclared civil war, a find at Sirir�ould be a light at the end of the tunnel for the country.

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