Opinion, by Michael Royster
RIO DE JANEIRO – Rio’s major newspaper this week ran a front page picture featuring a Greenpeace activist wearing an oil-sludge-begrimed cape standing on Copacabana Beach, showing a sign saying “BP — Risky Business” to pensive poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade—or rather to the bronze statue of him, seated on a bench placed there in 2002, long after he passed away in August 1987. In the picture, Brazil’s premier 20th Century poet seems to be paying attention, unlike most people in Brazil.
True, in year 2000, Brazil promulgated Law 9966, calling for the creation of a National Contingency Plan for oil spills. Unsurprisingly, nobody ever bothered, because: (i) everybody assumed Petrobras could handle any contingency; (ii) nobody knew about the pre-salt bonanza; and (iii) although there had been a few accidents on offshore rigs, no serious spills had been reported.
But then, ten years after the Law, came the Deepwater Horizon/BP blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. The top of that well sat a mile below the ocean surface. The pre-salt deposits all lie beneath more than one mile of seawater. So, some in Brazil began asking: “What would happen if …?”
The official answer, given in July by two directors of Agência Nacional de Petróleo (ANP), the Brazilian oil and gas regulatory body, was “it can’t happen here“. The reasons, given in interviews to the press, were: (a) ANP regulations are modern and thorough, unlike US regulations; (b) Petrobras has far more deep water drilling technology than anybody in the US; and (c) Petrobras has now drilled over eighty wells without anything bad happening.
Notwithstanding this bravado, it appears that ANP, the Navy and IBAMA are now confabulating over who’s going to do what under any National Contingency Plan. They are perhaps mindful of the lack of any coordinated response in the US, where neither the Coast Guard nor the EPA nor the MMS did anything until the uproar was generalized. ANP also said it sent technicians to the Gulf to observe what’s being done, even though, of course, “it can’t happen here.”
Unfortunately, within the byzantine world of Brazilian oil politics, there are two jokers in this deck. One is Petrobras, which has done all the drilling in the pre-salt, and will continue to do so after it receives a few billion dollars in new capital. The other is a brand new company, 100 percent government owned, called Pré-Sal Petróleo S.A., whose job will be to administer the contracts for pre-salt exploration and production. For all prior E&P activity, that role has belonged to ANP; however, this agency has two glaring political defects that will keep it from being involved in the pre-salt under Dilma: (1) it was created under the FHC administration; (2) it does not always kowtow to Petrobras. But if ANP is shunted aside, why should it be involved in a pre-salt Contingency Plan?
To close, the Curmudgeon asks if any research is being conducted here. In the Gulf of Mexico one finds oil-eating bacteria; hence the oil from thousands of constant small seeps from the sea floor does not rise to the surface. But is there any knowledge of seeps, let alone bacteria, in deep Brazilian waters? In the Gulf, ocean currents are well studied; but is there any knowledge of deep currents 150 miles offshore Brazil? The Curmudgeon suspects not, on both counts. What a relief to know it can’t happen here!