Colombia talks fracking while pipelines smolder

Author Patricia Garip, Senior Contributing Editor

Colombia considers hydraulic fracturing as a tool to expand oil reserves while oil pipeline attacks soar.

Colombia’s oil industry barely blinks an eye at the decades-old scourge of pipeline bombings. These days, the sector is laser-focused on a “responsible fracking” campaign that is getting a lot of play at this week´s big oil and gas conference in Bogota. Yet behind the scenes attacks on one of the country’s main export pipelines have surged to a 17-year record.

In the year to date, the 220,000 b/d Cano Limon-Covenas pipeline has been bombed 82 times, equivalent to one strike every four days. This is the highest number of attacks since 2001, when the line was hit 166 times, according to data from the pipeline´s owner, state-controlled Ecopetrol. The 770km pipeline, which hugs the eastern border with Venezuela, was bombed 62 times last year, 42 times in 2016, and 27 the year before.

The operational fallout of these attacks has diminished since last year when the interconnecting 120,000 b/d Bicentenario pipeline was made to flow in two directions, enabling crude production from the Cano Limon complex to reach the same Caribbean port of Covenas through the 790km Ocensa pipeline. But that route is more expensive.

Volatile eastern Colombia is known territory of the National Liberation Army (ELN), dissidents of the former guerrilla group Farc, and assorted criminal groups, all tied to the illegal drugs trade. The ELN and others like it have an expanding foothold in neighboring Venezuela, where they profit from illegal mining, smuggling and bustling exports of Colombian cocaine. A surge of Venezuelan refugees – one million across Colombia alone – adds to the combustible mix in the border region.

In southern Colombia near the border with Ecuador, Ecopetrol’s 85,000 b/d Transandino pipeline has seen a similar spike of 14 attacks this year, compared with just one in 2017, Ecopetrol says. The illegal drugs trade thrives there too.

Ecopetrol and Colombia’s armed forces are used to all this. Once the area around an attack is secured by the military, repairs and clean up are usually swift. But in recent years, the lines have become riddled with illicit valves, mainly installed by drug trafficking groups that use the stolen oil to process coca. This year alone, Ecopetrol says it has detected and dismantled 666 clandestine pipeline taps.

The repercussions of the pipeline bombings and oil theft are mainly felt in small towns, where oil spills contaminate land and waterways. A recent attack in Boyaca caused a forest fire too. Ecopetrol estimates that 8,300 bl of oil has spilled this year because of the attacks.

The roots of the assaults on Colombia´s infrastructure run deep through the country’s violent modern history that has claimed many lives and displaced even more. But these strikes, other attacks and kidnappings were supposed to have eased after the previous government of President Juan Manuel Santos signed a peace deal with the former guerrilla group Farc in 2016. The Santos government then launched peace talks with the ELN and forged a bilateral ceasefire that fell apart in January 2018.

Santos’  hawkish successor, Ivan Duque, swept into power in August on a wave of disillusionment with the peace process. He says his government will not be “duped” by the ELN, and there will be no more talks until the group stops its attacks and releases all hostages.

All of this is taking place in the background of a heated debate over whether Colombia should pursue its unconventional resources. Proponents say the country cannot afford to dismiss fracking if it wants to sustain and grow oil production that is Colombia’s main economic driver.  They are calling for an informed national discussion.

Opponents say fracking will pollute the environment and sicken local communities. And there are plenty of anti-fracking groups abroad who support that argument. But in Colombia, damage to the environment and health has already been happening – systematically for years – at the hands of those who routinely target Colombia’s oil pipelines. One doesn't hear much about that from the local anti-fracking movement.

The oil industry needs midstream security to market its production, whether conventional or unconventional. And for now, Colombia needs oil to sustain its economy. Until the country transitions away from fossil fuels, both sides in the fracking debate may have a common short-term interest in protecting the pipelines.

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