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By Jewellord T. Nem Singh, Contributing Reporter

RIO DE JANEIRO – Petrobrás has released its latest Sustainability Report, which contains the thorough details of its 1,600 projects amounting to a total investment of R$464.5 million in 2009. The projects contribute to its social responsibility agenda in response to the consequences of oil extraction, which remains somewhat in the shadow of the oil refinery disaster in Duque de Caixas, Rio de Janeiro in 1997.

Scenes like these are precisely what Petrobras hopes to avoid causing on Brazil's coast, photo by U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Within the oil sector that year, (including petroleum refining, alcohol production and nuclear combustibles), there were 1,397 accidents that exceeded fifteen days impact, 113 accidents that resulted in partial incapacity of the site, 47 accidents that led to permanent site damage, and five fatal deaths.

Since that time Petrobrás has worked hard to improve its social responsibility profile with projects covering employees’ welfare, environmental protection and social and community relations.

The new report is part of the company strategy to improve its sustainability index, which measures the extent to which international companies are ‘green’. Fears abound of the irreversible damages wrought by oil spills and other related disasters, and the latest incident in the Gulf led the ANP to temporarily halt planned expansion of British Petroleum in Brazil’s pre-salt reserves.

The Department of Health, Environment and Safety has been created to respond to workers’ conditions, especially in reducing accidents and occupational hazards for workers. On a larger scale, contingency plans have also been fortified in recent years; Petrobrás emergency planning is supported by the Environmental Defense Centers (EDCs). These centers, located at the operating sites, serve as the main body in charge of ensuring the maximum protection for its operating units in any emergency. Manned by up to twenty professionals in each EDC, the unit provides support to local contingency plans to contain environmental disasters, such as oil spills or any major technical damage in the rig.

Petrobrás invested around R$173.6 million on 868 social projects in 2009 alone, and with its flagship project “Development and Citizenship”, the company has put R$396 million into 1,891 projects since 2007. The social investment fund allocates resources in three main areas: income generation and job opportunity, further training and education for qualified professionals, and guaranteeing the rights of children and adolescents.

Environmental damage from oil spills can take years to recover from, photo by Chris Twomey/Wikimedia Creative Commons License.

The investments in energy efficiency and sustainable development (SD) projects of Petrobrás in the Amazon have now been the core elements of its environmental agenda. With the growing concerns of companies and public on climate change and pollution, Petrobrás now implements sustainability projects at various stages of oil extraction.

In the exploration and production stage, developing clean technology and reducing residues created from production have been its general objectives. Amongst many outcomes, water reusing in refineries of São Paulo and implementing a maximum admissible limit (MAL) for its solid residue generation are the main outcomes of its long-term environmental strategy. Between 2003 and 2008, its environmental program, following the eco-efficiency principle, has received over R$210 million.

But the future of Petrobrás and the oil industry cannot be saved by corporate social responsibility. With electric or hybrid cars on their way to becoming the norm in thirty years time, the industry is at a crossroads. What is clear is that to survive and remain profitable to its natural conclusion, oil must be handled with care by its producers, lest damage to the planet makes it an untenable resource.

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