Three weeks ago I was snorkeling over some of the best live coral I’ve ever seen at Puinare, a half hour in motorboat off the beach in Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela. I was in awe at the tens of thousands of blue minnows, the plentiful parrot fish, the little christmas-tree-shaped organisms that disappeared in a blink with the slightest disturbance in the water. In March, 131 oil tankers loaded up with cargo in Puerto La Cruz and the adjacent port of Jose and steamed out to sea. Thirty miles offshore, PDVSA just completed its second and third wells in the Mariscal Sucre natural gas development project. And in waters almost as lovely, a few thousand km south, Petrobras and partners are drilling the biggest oil find in decades, in conditions similar to the Gulf of Mexico.
The big BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a reminder of what can happen when oil and water mix. This is the same kind of drilling that is supposed to be the future of Brazil. Shallower-water offshore reservoirs are under development or exploration not just in Venezuela but in Colombia, Guyana, Suriname, Argentina, Chile and Peru — that is to say, every South American independent state with a coastline, other than Ecuador — plus Mexico. You also find talk, if not much action, about offshore drilling in Cuba, Aruba and Barbados, among other islands.
So what’s the lesson here? Obviously, the U.S. screwed up its regulation and control. Is there anything that South America and the Caribbean can learn from that error?
The U.S. has a big, widespread and powerful environmental movement with the money and technology to monitor water quality independent of the government. This is generally absent in Latin America.
The U.S. has laws allowing independent environmental lawsuits against polluters, without the cooperation or even notification of state authorities. I’m not aware of anything like that here.
Oil companies operating in the U.S. are private, while all of the biggest explorers in South America and Mexico are state-controlled.
Given these differences, I’d say that the biggest lesson is probably the need for extreme independence of environmental authorities and protection for whistle-blowers. Not likely to happen.
One advantage in South America and Mexico is that private oil companies are used to being pushed around, while in the U.S. they are used to having control. Maybe state oil companies should be treated the same way.