Colombia is experiencing a decline in conventional oil and natural gas reserves, which has led the government to promote new exploration alternatives through fracking. According to the National Hydrocarbon Agency of Colombia, the country has the capacity to produce an additional 25,000 barrels of oil per day, increasing current production 12 fold.
“You must understand that the hydrocarbon sector is critical to Colombia,” began a seasoned hydrocarbon executive, “it is fundamental to the State’s income. It generates a significant amount of employment and it provides energy security. Fracking, with a perceived risk of contaminating water sources, is politically complex and local communities need to be sure these risks can be mitigated.”
“[The hydrocarbon industry] is fundamental to the State’s income. It generates a significant amount of employment and it provides energy security.”
Industry executive, Colombia
A veteran of Colombia’s public hydrocarbon sector agreed, “The fracking discussion comes down to concerns over water contamination. People do not trust companies to operate with precision and environmental health concerns in mind. To balance this against Colombia’s desire for wealth creation and energy security is a complicated problem.”
Ecopetrol, the Colombian state-owned company, and ExxonMobil are currently operating two pilot projects, Kalé and Platero, which if they reached the stages of production and commercialisation would increase the country’s oil reserves by 4.6 times, granting Colombia 25 years of self-sufficiency.
These pilots will be crucial in addressing the environmental question, explained the hydrocarbon veteran, “These two pilots are fundamental to the future of fracking in Colombia. For now, the Environmental Impact Study is being worked on with the results expected to be ready by late this year and early next year. If the results are good, we could see drilling begin in the middle of 2022. This could be a significant issue in the Congressional and Presidential elections next year.”
Fracking is strongly opposed by environmental organisations in the country, which have legally contested its regulation. The regulatory framework for fracking is currently being analysed by the State Council of Colombia, the country’s Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the technical regulation put forward by legislators for fracking activities has been temporarily suspended until the publication of the final verdict. The industry executive wasn’t surprised, “The current bills are a joke, they have very limited technical detail, with no depth and series of inaccuracies.”
“The fracking discussion comes down to concerns over water contamination. People do not trust companies to operate with precision and environmental health concerns in mind.”
Veteran of the public hydrocarbon sector, Colombia
Colombia has been debating the convenience of regulating fracking since 2014. The strong opposition of environmental groups, local communities and a UN report warning about the environmental perils of the activity suggest that the debate will not be closed prior to the May 2022 presidential elections. In this context, Gonzalo Andrade, director of the National Science Institute of the National University of Colombia said that Colombia still lacks accurate information to understand the impact that fracking will have on the country’s biodiversity.
The short-term outlook for fracking in Colombia remains uncertain. It is a controversial issue that pits the UN and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights against the National Hydrocarbon Agency, the Ministry of Mines and Energy, Ecopetrol and ExxonMobil. For now, all eyes are waiting for the technical and scientific data from Ecopetrol’s pilots and next year’s election results.