|© The Guardian|
''Angry Canary Islanders brace for an unwanted guest - the oil industry
Madrid and Repsol have pushed through deepwater drilling and fracking licences to recover a hoped-for 2.2bn barrels of oil despite massive local opposition
Nearly 200,000 people - one in 10 of the population - protested against plans to extract oil from in and around the Canary Islands. Photograph: Desiree Martin/AFP/Getty Images
In most places the news that you’ve struck oil would be cause to crack open the champagne. But not in the Canary Islands where Spain’s biggest oil company Repsol is due to begin drilling off Lanzarote and Fuerteventura.
“Our wealth is in our climate, our sky, our sea and the archipelago’s extraordinary biodiversity and landscape,” the Canary Islands president, Paulino Rivero, said. “Its value is that it’s natural and this is what attracts tourism. Oil is incompatible with tourism and a sustainable economy.”
Rivero, a former primary school teacher, is on a crusade against oil and he is not alone. Protest marches have drawn as many as 200,000 of the islands’ 2 million inhabitants on to the streets. The regional government planned to consolidate public opinion with a referendum on 23 November. Voters were to be asked: “Do you believe the Canaries should exchange its environmental and tourism model for oil and gas exploration?”
As with the weekend’s scheduled referendum on Catalan independence, the Madrid government contrived to have the plebiscite banned as unconstitutional and Rivero has now commissioned a private poll he hopes will demonstrate the strength of public opinion.
“The banning of the referendum reveals a huge weakness in the system,” said Rivero. “You have to listen to the people. There’s a serious discrepancy between what people here want and what the Spanish government wants. You are allowed to hold consultations under the Spanish constitution and what we wanted to do was completely legal. The problem we have is that some government departments have too close a relationship with Repsol.”
Repsol is flush with cash after settling a long dispute with Argentina and is keen to develop what may be the country’s biggest oilfield after winning permission to drill in August.
The company believes the fields may contain as much as 2.2bn barrels of oil and is investing €7.5bn to explore two sites about 40 miles (60km) east of Fuerteventura.
If its estimates are correct, the wells could produce around 110,000 barrels a day for 10 years, equivalent to 10% of Spain’s oil needs. Spain, which has never had a wealth of natural resources, currently imports 99% of its oil at a cost of around €40bn a year.
Drilling in the area has been held up for more than a decade by environmental challenges and delays by successive governments, but Repsol has said it expects to begin work before the end of the year.
The company claims it has offered every guarantee that the work will be carried out safely and with respect for the environment and has set up an €80m contingency fund for compensation in the event of accidents.
Rivero is not convinced. “When we look at the development of Argentina or Mexico or Nigeria we see that the local people don’t benefit much from oil,” he says. “Furthermore, the oil here is in very deep water which hugely increases the risks, as we saw with the environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.”
The Spanish government says it cannot pass up on the possibility of finding oil and has issued licences for conventional exploration as well as fracking.
José Manuel Soria, the minister for industry, energy and tourism, said last month that “Spain cannot afford the luxury of not finding out whether we have hydrocarbons.”
Speaking at a conference under the slogan “Reindustrialise to win”, Soria said that “we spend €100m a day on gas and oil that our industry needs. We all want our industry to be more competitive and for that to happen we need cheaper energy.”
Rivero concedes that there is a conflict between what the Canaries want and the Spanish national interest. “As president of the Canaries, my first responsibility is to protect the Canaries’ interests,” he says. “There’s no benefit for us. It presents risks to tourism, the environment, fishing, agriculture and to the desalination of seawater. When we weigh up what we have to gain and what we stand to lose, we don’t gain anything. Repsol is the one who profits from this.”
Rivero’s principal argument is that, the risk of oil spills aside, the oil will in due course be exhausted whereas tourism gives the islands a sustainable economic base. The tourist industry, which attracts 12m people to the islands, is worth €13bn a year, 32% of GDP.
The islands, where 40% of land is protected, boast three Unesco world heritage sites and are a major ecotourist destination. As well as hiking amid unspoilt landscape, visitors can opt for the Loro Parque on Tenerife, the rainforest of La Gomera, or volcano treks on Lanzarote, among other attractions.
Another issue is unemployment, currently running at 33% in the Canaries, nearly 10% above the Spanish national average. Rivero remains unconvinced that the oil business will make much of a dent on the jobless total.
“Repsol says it may create 3,000 jobs but in Lanzarote and Fuerteventura alone more than 50,000 people work in tourism and in the Canaries it’s more than 400,000,” he says. “The oil industry will not complement what we already have. In fact, it will impede it.”
Despite the setback in the high court and the determination of the central government to explore all energy opportunities, Rivero remains unbowed.
“We in the Canaries do not accept being treated like a colony, like something from another century when the Europeans pillaged Africa’s resources,” he said.
“Repsol thinks everything has a price but they’re not going to buy the Canaries. We won’t bow down. We may lose a battle but we’ll win the war.” ''