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Paper Offers Framework for Amazon Oil and Gas Development

Oil and gas development continues to press into the most remote corners of the western Amazon, one of the most biologically and culturally diverse zones on Earth. Now a study proposes a new 10-point, best-practice framework that combines technical engineering criteria with consideration of ecological and social concerns to reduce the negative impacts of Amazonian hydrocarbon exploration and production.

The researchers say, for example, that by using extended reach drilling (ERD), a technique to reach a larger subsurface area from one surface drilling location, it is possible to greatly reduce the total number of needed drilling platforms and access roads for a given project.

Using ERD along with other key components of technical best practice, such as reduced pipeline right-of-way and a prohibition on new access roads, could reduce project-related deforestation by more than 75 percent, says Dr. Clinton Jenkins, a North Carolina State University biologist and co-author of the study, published online Wednesday, May 1, in PLOS ONE.

“The vast majority of planned drilling wells, production platforms and pipeline routes overlap sensitive areas such as protected areas, indigenous territories, critical ecosystems and vital watersheds,” Jenkins said. “Identifying these types of potentially conflictive overlaps early in the planning process is essential to avoiding future conflicts.”

A study presents a new framework for oil and gas development in the Amazon.

The study’s analysis focused on the department of Loreto, a vast Amazonian region in northern Peru that is home to extraordinary biological and cultural diversity. Loreto recently made headlines when the Peruvian government declared an environmental state of emergency following years of extensive oil contamination in part of the area.

“Loreto makes an ideal case study because it is one of the largest and most dynamic hydrocarbon zones in the Amazon. Following the state of emergency, there is an added urgency to develop methods to minimize the impacts of any future development,” said study lead author Dr. Matt Finer of the Center for International Environmental Law. “We developed such a method that identifies specific areas where the use of best practice would drastically reduce impacts.”

The study combines the analysis of new detailed maps of existing and planned oil and gas infrastructure with a detailed set of best practice guidelines designed to minimize impacts in a tropical forest environment.

“We found that, in addition to the older oil operations that have caused significant contamination, there are a series of major new oil and gas discoveries around the region,” Jenkins added. “These discoveries, in addition to the continually expanding plans for more exploration, highlight the urgent need to implement mandatory best practice guidelines to avoid repeating the problems of the past.”

The researchers assert that following best practices should not increase project costs and may actually be cheaper in the long run.

“The engineering section of the guidelines addresses the full range of key project components,” said co-author Bill Powers of E-Tech International. “In addition to greatly reducing negative impacts such as deforestation, we found that best practice does not impose substantially greater costs than a conventional project, and may in fact reduce overall costs.”

The open-access study can be found here.

The research was funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, National Geographic Society, and the Blue Moon Fund.

- kulikowski -

Note to editors: An abstract of the paper follows.

Potential of Best Practice to Reduce Impacts from Oil and Gas Projects in the Amazon

Authors: Matt Finer, Center for International Environmental Law; Clinton Jenkins, North Carolina State University; Bill Powers, E-Tech International

Published: May 1, 2013, online in PLOS ONE

Abstract: The western Amazon continues to be an active and controversial zone of hydrocarbon exploration and production. We argue for the urgent need to implement best practices to reduce the negative environmental and social impacts associated with the sector. Here, we present a three-part study aimed at resolving the major obstacles impeding the advancement of best practice in the region. Our focus is on Loreto, Peru, one of the largest and most dynamic hydrocarbon zones in the Amazon. First, we develop a set of specific best practice guidelines to address the lack of clarity surrounding the issue. These guidelines incorporate both engineering-based criteria and key ecological and social factors. Second, we provide a detailed analysis of existing and planned hydrocarbon activities and infrastructure, overcoming the lack of information that typically hampers large-scale impact analysis. Third, we evaluate the planned activities and infrastructure with respect to the best practice guidelines. We show that Loreto is an extremely active hydrocarbon front, highlighted by a number of recent oil and gas discoveries and a sustained government push for increased exploration. Our analyses reveal that the use of technical best practice could minimize future impacts by greatly reducing the amount of required infrastructure such as drilling platforms and access roads. We also document a critical need to consider more fully the ecological and social factors, as the vast majority of planned infrastructure overlaps sensitive areas such as protected areas, indigenous territories, and key ecosystems and watersheds. Lastly, our cost analysis indicates that following best practice does not impose substantially greater costs than conventional practice, and may in fact reduce overall costs. Barriers to the widespread implementation of best practice in the Amazon clearly exist, but our findings show that there can be great benefits to its implementation.

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