A point of view on energy business
If you liked the TV series ”Lost”, for sure you would enjoy the landing in Malabo, the capital city of Equatorial Guinea. As the aircraft begins to descend you couldn’t say if it is gravity or a mysterious magnetic force emerging from the rain-forest what is making the plane go down. The Bioko Island, where Malabo is located, is a volcanic formation of 47 miles long and 20 miles wide with black sand beaches and a 9,800 feet peak almost permanently covered by heavy clouds. But the idyllic sky view of Bioko changes drastically once you get out of the airport. After seeing the Jurassic Park-style infrastructures constructed during the golden years of oil, you would expect more bumping into a Tyrannosaurus Rex than listening to a stalking Black Smoke Monster. Luckily none of them is to be found in Guinea, although there are other serious challenges for its population.
In 1996 the American multinational ExxonMobil began to extract oil near the shore of Guinea. From that moment on, the international community has given credibility to the dictator that illegitimately controls the country ever since his coup d’état in 1979, Teodoro Obiang. Human Rights Watch and EG Justice have repeatedly denounced political torture and ethnical murders in the country. But none of these seems to matter when you own the country rated as the third oil producer of Africa; after Nigeria and Angola.
It was September 2007 when I travelled to Equatorial Guinea. There I had a relative working for the German oilfield services provider Schlumberger. And they were kind enough to let me in their on-shore facilities in Malabo, where they constructed and maintained the equipment for the off-shore oil production. Despite my passion for machines and technology, the only thing I can clearly remember about that day is the Health and Safety talk previous to the visit. We sat inside a construction cabinet deprived of natural light and the HSS Manager began to talk in a very quiet and gently tone. It was like if the Island had its own Dharma Initiative and I were a castaway staring at him and trying to catch the words that would give me the clue to get out of the nightmare. But likewise in the TV show, everything became more and more confusing as he kept talking. << What do you know about Hepatitis? Do you know what Malaria is? I will give you some of those >>, referring to the anti-malaria pills on his right hand. Then he talked about mosquitoes and how dangerous they were. What was it all about? Were mosquitoes indeed the most dangerous thing in that place? And anyway, how was I supposed to have been shipped in a plane from Europe to Africa without having heard about Malaria before? You cannot even enter the continent if you don’t have your own pills and vaccination card. But the thing went on and it became even scarier: << Do you know what the word AIDS stands for? Have you ever seen one of those? >>, referring to the condom on his left hand. << Am I really supposed to have sex in here? >> I thought, << Oh these Germans! Always so hospitable, even outside their own country >>. But then I realized what they were trying to do. They were selling me their brand; pretending diseases were the greatest danger in Guinea and not their extraction techniques, which are now told to be responsible for earthquakes, water pollution, and uncontrolled radioactive wastes. So what the heck was I supposed to say when he asked if I had understood? “Namaste” was the only word that came to my mind.
The technique used by Schlumberger and ExxonMobil in Equatorial Guinea is known as hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”. Thought they were using it there for oil, it also allows extracting shale gas by pumping previously polluted water underground. Shale gas extraction is believed to be the energetic panacea of the XXI century by some. But the IEA warns that by permitting the costly and environmentally unfriendly shale gas extraction, governments are postponing the only real energy alternative to limited and polluting fossil fuels: Renewables. However, in the US, fracking has lately become a very popular technique which is being massively used, mostly in Pennsylvania. Within the next weeks the governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, must decide if fracking will be allowed in his region after being banned with the moratorium of 2008. But a big portion of the society is warning the governor about the irreversible impact that fracking has already inflicted in the zones where it is being used. The wealthy artist and widow of John Lennon, Yoko Ono, leads one of the most famous calls for action: Artists Against Fracking.
The decision of governor Cuomo is seen as a very important one because it will not only affect the public opinion about fracking in the US. New York it is believed to be a possible flagship for the spread of fracking in Europe too. The EU lacks a specific regulation about shale gas extraction, which makes the allowing of hydraulic fracturing even more dangerous. While the European Commission conducts a public consultation about the extraction of unconventional fossil fuels in its territory, some governments take advantage of the loophole and promote the firsts explorations, mainly in the UK, Poland and Spain. Politicians of the last one, being one of the most corrupt countries in the world, are trying to hide this fact to the public opinion. And though the first earthquakes already took place in the southern region of Jaen – with a frequency that reached the number of 42 small earthquakes a day during the last months -, the media does very rarely mention the possible relation between them and the gas companies’ activities.
In words of Faith Birol, Chief Economist of the International Energy Agency, State leaders should radically change their policies in order to address climate change. But they seem to be “Lost” in the middle of a mysterious island of lobbies and oil companies. So lost that it is the first time the US and Europe are welcoming a technique so dangerous that only dictators in developing countries dared to allow before. Looking to the strange and unconnected series of events that took place in relation to fracking, the energy sector should be prepared to see the most wired events taking place; like polar bears strolling through the jungle or the Spanish government taking back the premium for renewables that had turned them into the world leader in Concentrated Solar Power (CSP), in favour of unconventional fossil fuels.
Governor Cuomo has now the opportunity to make a change. But if he fails, no matter how loud we ask for social and environmental responsibility, the only thing we will hear from our leaders will be “Namaste”.