Political parties, interest groups and society in general this week reacted with incredulity and dismay after high-ranking government officials joined to inform the country that oil prospecting off the coast of south-western Portugal would commence in September.
The news was made official following a decision by the Portuguese Environment Agency (APA) that there was no need for an environmental impact study to ascertain any adverse effects resulting from drilling off the Algarve coast.
There was not a political party that did not criticise the decision to allow the ENI/Galp consortium to initiate oil drilling off the Algarve coast, with MPs from the ruling Socialist Party joining in lambasting the APA.
In a statement issued on Wednesday evening, MPs representing the Algarve branch of the party, said the APA had become “useless, even an obstacle, when it comes to forming policies relating to environmental issues in Portugal.
They act against recommendations made by lawmakers in Parliament and in contradiction to the opinion of associations and organisations who defend environmental causes.”
The Socialists said the decision is “against the interests of the Algarve and the country and, in a certain way, the APA has just confirmed its own irrelevance.”
Local MPs also recalled that tourism represents around a fifth of the country’s exports, estimated at 15 billion euros, with the Algarve responsible for around half this figure.
The verdict to go ahead with drilling along the Alentejo basin unopposed came after the APA President Nuno Lancasta announced that “no significant negative impacts were identified” in the proposed drilling set to commence in September at a location 46 kilometres from Ajezur.
Drilling will take place at a depth of 1,070 metres performed initially by the Sapien 12000 drillship which, until last month, had been used in operations off the coast of Morocco. Crew on board will number around 150.
The prospection will last an estimated three months over a period of 50 working days.
Members of the opposition PSD party expressed similar sentiments to their political opponents, saying the APA’s decision will only serve to increase “mistrust and uncertainty” among residents.
They also recalled that more than 42,000 people participated in the public consultation with the opinions of respondents not held in regard.
The Greens have meanwhile already scheduled a debate for this Friday with other opposition parties saying they will use this opportunity to challenge the decision not to conduct an environmental impact study.
The Left Bloc, part of the governing alliance, have also called for heads to roll, and are arguing the role of the APA should be to act in defence of the environment whenever doubt exists as to the potential of damage being caused to it.
The Government, in making the APA’s decision known, said through Foreign Minister Augusto Santos Silva that no further licences will be granted for future oil prospection during the current legislative period, which ends next year.
However, the Minister added that the Government will honour the existing licence agreements and their respective contractual obligations for the sake of commercial stability.
The disputed contract was agreed to back in 2007 by the Socialist government led by José Sócrates, with Economy Minister Manuel Pinho a signatory of the deal. Both these former politicians are currently under investigation on charges including bribery and corruption.
In the meantime, Augusto Santos Silva, who is also effectively the Deputy Prime Minister, added that should oil be discovered off the Algarve coast, it would aid Portugal in becoming less reliant on fossil fuel imports.
“We will continue to need petroleum for several purposes for some time yet”, he said, explaining that the Government will closely monitor measures imposed by the APA to ensure “continued safety and environmental risk limitations.”
Jorge Botelho, chairman of the Algarve local council community group AMAL, lamented the decision, which he this week said is “contrary to the one we expected”. The current Tavira Mayor is also adamant that drilling is not risk-free and poses potential environmental threats.
He further revealed that expert opinions have confirmed this move will have an impact on the environment, while it will also have adverse effects on the economic dynamics of the region, especially in terms of tourism.
This news comes a month after Portugal’s government won ‘gold’ in the 2018 European Fossil Fuel Subsidies Awards. The unwanted prize was for the biggest waste of taxpayers’ money on supporting dirty energy.
The second edition of a unique contest organised by Climate Action Network (CAN) Europe was won by Portugal for handing out a licence to national gas and oil companies for drilling in the deep sea in the southwest of the country.
The winners are governments who waste taxpayers’ money on supporting dirty energy.
A Europe-wide digital campaign in March triggered people across Europe to vote for the worst fossil fuel subsidies.
The aim of the awards, set up by CAN Europe, is, according to the organisation, “to expose the well-hidden ways in which European governments are using taxpayers’ money to support fossil fuels at the cost of the climate, the environment and people’s health, and increase the pressure to rapidly phase out fossil fuel subsidies.”
It said Portugal cruised to gold for handing out a licence to national gas and oil companies for drilling in the deep sea in the Southern province of Alentejo, a protected biodiversity area and a tourism hotspot.
Following this news, Francisco Ferreira, director of Zero in Portugal added: “It is unacceptable that the Portuguese government favours access to oil drilling companies on the coast, while the country has a leading role on pledging for ambitious climate action and is planning to become carbon neutral by 2050.”