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Algarve oil exploration suspended by parliament

oilrigtransportIn a major victory for the Algarve’s anti-oil lobby, the Portuguese parliament today voted for the “immediate suspension of the development of exploitation and extraction of oil and gas, conventional or unconventional, in the Algarve."

The Left Bloc proposal gained unexpected support from the Communist party and the ruling Socialist Party which until now had backed Prime Minister António Costa in promoting oil and gas exploration “so that the government knows what reserves are out there.”

The decision to suspend oil and gas exploration off the Alentejo coast was supported by the Socialists, Left Bloc, Communists, Greens and the Animal and Nature Party.

The proposal was voted against by the former ruling coalition parties, the Social Democrats and the Popular Party, under whose regime the concession contracts were signed in deep secrecy.

There were two key proposals debated. The first proposal, that was passed, was for the "immediate suspension of the development of exploration and oil and gas extraction, conventional or unconventional, in the Algarve.”

The second proposal failed. This was a more ambitious proposal which urged the government to "immediately suspend all contracts for the exploitation of hydrocarbons in the Algarve." The Socialists, Communists, and former coalition partners PSD and CDS-PP all voted against.

Parliament also approved other recommendations, proposed by the Socialists and the Communists, that the environmental impact of oil and gas exploration in the Algarve should be assessed from the outset, i.e. at the exploration stage.

Another approved recommendation, again proposed by the Socialists, was that there is a "proper publication of the findings of the evaluation of the concession contracts and as there are contracts where there are doubts about legality, the procedures for termination are adopted."

The natural resources directorate today has been instructed by the Minister of the Sea to conduct public information workshops on Portugal’s oil and gas exploration programme, the first of which will be in the anti-oil heartland of Aljezur on July 12th, at 18:30 at the Bombeiros building.

A second meeting is planned for Portimão on July 14th.

The Minister of the Sea considers it in the interests of all to extend the consultation period for the exploration of oil in the deep offshore in the Alentejo basin and has instructed the fuels authority to promote and organise public clarification sessions on the subject.

The date for exploratory drilling off Aljezur already had been moved from July 1st to August 3rd to leave space for public consultation after an ASMAA public petition forced parliament to debate the July 1st start of drilling by the Galp/ENI consortium.

The one public consultation that has been held in the Algarve was in Faro on January 12th this year at which representatives of oil companies gave brief propaganda presentations that assumed their audience was ill-informed and would remain so.

This certainly was not the case as Paulo Carmona, the president of the ENMC fuels authority, found out to his anger and embarrassment as he dodged many searching questions and threatened to abort the meeting if the audience of 400+ members of the public did not quieten down.

The public petition delivered to parliament by anti-oil association ASMAA last week, highlighted the lack of transparency in the whole oil concession programme with no public consultation sessions held in affected areas.

The Minister of Sea has instructed the government body, the Direcção Geral de Recursos Naturais, Segurança e Serviços Marítimos (DGRM) to conduct these information workshops, thus sidelining Paulo Carmona from the ENMC fuels authority whose handling of the Faro meeting lacked the professionalism required for those present to benefit from considered discussion.

The debate today included the suggestion that a task force be formed to assess and evaluate conformance or non-conformance by the oil companies, the Ministry of the Environment and the ENMC fuels authority. Such a group would include representatives of NGOs and universities.

What is certain is the drilling planned for today and postponed to August 3rd remains suspended, as does all oil exploration activity until the government has decided, in the light of public support for a clean energy, oil-free Algarve region, what it is going to do ‘in the public interest’ - a concept that until this point has been low on the list of political priorities.

António Costa’s original mission to find oil in Portugal was, he said, one of “national sovereignty and only once an inventory has been drawn up of what resources lie beneath the ocean should the discussion take place as to who might or might not explore for the country’s mineral wealth.”

With stiff and well-organised anti-oil opposition through ASMAA and other associations, and with Portugal’s desire expressed in Paris this year to reduce CO2 emissions, the battle for full and open public consultation has been won but the war continues.