Fears of oil spills and drilling grip residents of Canary Islands

More than 1,100 tankers have passed through the tourism-dependent area so far this year

María Sosa Troya
Las Palmas de Gran Canaria -
A Cairn Energy oil platform, located close to the area off the Canary Islands where Repsol wants to prospect.
A Cairn Energy oil platform, located close to the area off the Canary Islands where Repsol wants to prospect.ÁNGEL MEDINA (EFE)

Regardless of whether Spanish energy giant Repsol decides to press ahead with its plans to develop the offshore fields close to Lanzarote and Fuerteventura, oil is now a reality in the Canary Islands. So far this year, more than 1,100 oil tankers have passed through the area, according to local maritime authorities. Many other, smaller vessels carrying hydrocarbons also navigate these Atlantic waters. In 2012, over 12 million tons of hydrocarbons passed through the archipelago, according to the Canary Islands Statistics Institute. Environmentalists and many local residents are angry about the increased traffic, and, fearing a spill, are organizing campaigns, as well as calling on the government to prepare contingency plans should a vessel be involved in an accident.

The Canary Islands was declared a Special Maritime Protection Zone by the UN's International Maritime Organization in 2005. This means that there are only two routes for vessels carrying dangerous cargoes through the islands. Such vessels must also inform the authorities about what they are carrying, where they have come from, and where they are heading. "This measure has been an improvement, but we need to do more. The area's marine life must be protected," says Beatriz Ayala of the Lanzarote branch of the World Wildlife Fund. Six of the seven islands are biosphere reserves.

Opposition to exploration mounts

M. S. T.

In Arrecife, the capital of Lanzarote, few people seem to support Repsol's plans to begin exploring for oil 60 kilometers offshore. Ask just about anybody, and the answer is "no," with many politicians, NGOs, environmentalists, and civic associations all rejecting the idea. To give their opposition greater weight, a commission has been set up to persuade the regional government to begin moving toward a sustainable energy model based on renewables. They say the environmental impact of oil production on the islands' rich and varied marine life will be catastrophic. In the event of any kind of spill or accident, the islands' tourism sector, which contributes almost a third of GDP, will be negatively affected. What's more, the Canary Islands depend on desalinated seawater. Then there is the question of just who is going to benefit from oil production, and most people say that it will be Repsol, not them. In short, the people of the Canary Islands are united in their opposition to oil development, and are determined to make sure that it doesn't go ahead.

The decree that the government in Madrid pushed through Congress authorizing Repsol to begin the process of exploring for oil has been challenged by seven institutions - among them the regional government Socialist Party-led coalition, and the local councils of Lanzarote and Fuerteventura, which are led by the Canaries Coalition and want the Supreme Court to decide on the matter. The Supreme Court has already rejected Repsol's previous attempt to begin exploration, in 2004. Events are now moving quickly, with opponents rallying support ahead of the May 2014 date that has been set to begin exploration. Repsol has said that if the government in Madrid gives it the go-ahead, it will begin initial drilling then. Ezequiel Navío, the coordinator of the opposition campaign within Lanzarote's local council against the planned prospection, says that he is now looking for support internationally, having garnered 35,000 signatures through the website www.savecanarias.org. Other initiatives are underway.

Enrique Hernández Bento, under secretary at the Industry, Tourism and Energy Ministry, plays down the widespread opposition to the plan.

"There was a big demonstration against drilling in March 2012, but since then, there has been little support," he says. He insists that any drilling will be secure: "Repsol's environmental impact report has to get the Environment Ministry's approval. If it doesn't, then there will be no drilling." Hernández Bento says that if oil is found, Spain could save around 10 percent on its energy bill. Aside from the government, the Canary Islands Business Confederation -- based in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria -- is also backing the proposal. But the business confederations of Fuerteventura, along with hotel owners in Las Palmas, are against it.

If the Spanish government gives Repsol the green light to begin drilling for oil, the company will carry out two exploratory surveys around 60 kilometers off the coast of Lanzarote and Fuerteventura, starting in May 2014. One of the main criticisms from opponents to the planned drilling is the absence of any contingency plan in the environmental impact report the company has prepared. Sources at Repsol say they are working on a plan, but do not know when it will be ready, but insist that an accident is "almost impossible." But they do admit that between 2006 and 2010 Repsol was responsible for more than 6,900 "incidents" worldwide involving not just exploration and drilling, but also land transport of crude oil.

The regional government of the Canary Islands is opposed to offshore drilling in the area, and is instead promoting its ports as a hub between Africa, the Americas and Europe. According to sources at the port in Las Palmas, in Gran Canaria, the islands receive ships from all over the world, the majority of them from Brazil and Equatorial Guinea.

"Around three or four oil rigs also come here each year, leaving between 800,000 and one million euros a day," says José Juan Socas, vice president of Fedeport, the port's business federation.

"There is no contradiction in rejecting exploration and promoting ourselves as a base for the global oil transport industry. We are not going to turn our backs on such an important industry," says regional deputy Fernando Ríos Rull of the Canaries Coalition.

Ríos Rull says it is the central government's job to provide contingency plans for how to deal with a potential oil spill. Sources at the Public Works Ministry say there are 13 vessels, along with a plane and two helicopters, based on Tenerife to deal with any accident involving an oil tanker. The ministry adds that Spain is part of a European rapid-response program to deal with spills. Ríos Rull argues that the Canary Islands has plans to deal with an emergency. "We are working on this, because if there is going to be drilling, then we need to be prepared. We will be discreet about it," he adds.

As well as vice president of Fedeport, Socas is also the head of the company that, among other things, is tasked with environment safety at Las Palmas port. He is critical of the regional government: "It should be carrying out emergency drills each year; its staff need to be trained." Jesús Cisneros, a physics lecturer at the University of Gran Canaria (ULPGC), and an expert in marine pollution, says not enough is being done to protect the archipelago's waters. He has analyzed Repsol's environmental impact study, and says the chance of a blowout is much greater than the company's estimate of one in 50,000, accusing it of basing its risk assessment on faulty methodology. "It is essential to install a detection system using buoys that automatically warn of a spill," he adds.

One of the main concerns about trying to control a spill in the archipelago is the currents, which would wash oil ashore not only on Lanzarote and Fuerteventura, but would also carry it to the rest of the islands. "There are a great many currents that converge on the islands. One of them begins on the African coast and then cuts through the eastern islands toward the south of Gran Canaria where it meets several others," says Alonso Hernández, the director of the Institute of Oceanography and Climate Change at ULPGC. "This is the dominant direction, but currents change, and there is a great deal of variability, which creates huge eddies," he adds.

A spill's behavior depends in large part on how deep under the water it is. If it is on the surface, it will be moved around by the wind. But if it takes place at significant depths — Repsol expects to be producing at between 800 and 1,000 meters — then it will be dependent on the ocean's currents.

Scientists say the Canary Islands are not only at risk from oil exploration and drilling in Spanish waters. "It's not just about deciding whether we want oil drilling in the Canary Islands, but about readying ourselves for a catastrophe that could take place somewhere else," says José Mangas, professor of geology at ULPGC. "A spill off the Moroccan coast could cause serious damage to the Canary Islands' ecosystem. We have to be prepared for this kind of eventuality," he says.

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