Colombia’s Minister of Mines and Energy Omar Andrés Camacho: ‘I am a punk minister’

The official is leading the green revolution that President Gustavo Petro has in mind, getting rid of oil and coal

Andrés Camacho, ministro de Minas y Energía de Colombia
Andrés Camacho, Colombia's Minister of Mines and Energy, in his Bogotá office on September 25, 2023.CHELO CAMACHO
Juan Diego Quesada

“Come on in,” says an energetic voice.

Omar Andrés Camacho holds out his hand at the door of his office. He has a neat beard, his hair is parted to one side and he wears a plaid jacket that falls below his waist. Few people better represent the change underway in Colombia. If everything had continued as usual, he would not be here. A few years ago, he was the lead singer of a punk rock band called Komintern 43, and a student leader at the Universidad Distrital Francisco José de Caldas. As Colombia’s Minister of Energy and Mines, he is the first student from that institution in its 70-year history to become a government minister.

Camacho oversees the issue about which Colombian president Gustavo Petro is most concerned: the environment. The president has campaigned against oil and coal and, as he has said himself, wants to lead a green revolution in Latin America to save the planet from destruction. An electrical engineer with a bachelor’s degree in physics and a master’s degree in energy management and renewable energy sources, Camacho has to carry out an energy transition that clashes with the interests of capitalism. And who better to do it than him? “I’m a punk minister,” he says, smiling. On his jacket lapel, he wears an inverted red triangle, which is an anti-fascist symbol.

Question: Will you sign more contracts for oil and coal exploration?

Answer. We have a policy of developing energy exploration as part of the energy transition. That does not mean that we are not going to do more, but rather that we are taking steps toward new contracts for the exploitation of geothermal energy, white hydrogen and other types of energy. We are going to develop new contracts for the energy transition.

Q. Is that a yes or a no?

A. We have new contracts in place and the ones we are going to sign [in the future will] have an eye toward energy transition.

Q. How many oil and coal contracts does the country have right now?

A. For coal, which are not contracts per se but mining titles... I do not have the exact number because they have been in place for a long time. Some are concessions; others are coal exploitation contracts. And for hydrocarbons, excluding non-conventional deposits, there are 292 contracts.

Q. Does this represent a change in discourse regarding what President Gustavo Petro said at the beginning of his government, which was ending the use of fossil fuels?

A. The President has never said that. He has always stated that the transition means taking progressive steps in a planned manner. And what we are going to do is to take those steps toward new explorations.

Q. That is to say, the transition is being done with the hydrocarbon industry.

A. Since the day I arrived, I’ve said that: the transition is being done with hydrocarbons, a transition on which we have already worked. We are going to need them for a time, even up to 2040, 2050... If there are no substitutes for the petrochemical industry, we will continue to require hydrocarbons. The idea is that our dependence on them will decrease.

Q. I don’t want to contradict you, but does this imply a softening of the proposals of your predecessor (Irene Vélez) or of the president himself?

A. It’s the same program. We have maintained that from the beginning. We intend to reduce the role of hydrocarbons, not only in the energy matrix but also in terms of economic dependence.

Andrés Camacho
Andrés Camacho in his office in Bogotá.CHELO CAMACHO

Q. Will you use gas as part of the transition to green energies?

A. The world will necessarily have to use gas until we manage to reduce its use. Our intention is to move towards the use of new energy sources. That will only depend on the pace at which we manage to introduce new energies in the country.

Q. As you know, Petro and [Venezuelan president] Nicolás Maduro agreed that Colombia was going to buy gas from Venezuela.

A. I am not aware of that agreement. We have not agreed to anything about that. Any transition process implies autonomy, security and sovereignty.

Q. Venezuela needs Colombia to buy gas so it can finance itself.

A. So far there has been a re-establishment of relations to the point that consulates are being opened on the border. That is an ongoing process, but we do not have any agreement on mining-energy policy, nor have we set up importation from anywhere.

Q. Are you planning to look for white hydrogen?

A. Yes, we are in the process of doing that. We have several agencies and organizations in that sector doing research. For example, as the scientific authority, Colombian Geological Service is looking for similarities with the geographic and geological patterns of some places around the world to see what our potential is. And the National Hydrocarbons Agency is preparing to identify where there would be potential and use its experience in hydrocarbons to exploit new energy sources like white hydrogen.

Q. You have said that it was a mistake to have so much private sector participation in regulating public services.

A. We said that there is criticism to be made of the privatization process, of some of the models that were applied and about the participation of the users and the State. We have to look for a way for the State to have more of a leading role, which means having a superintendency with better conditions so it can act in the face of certain market distortions. And [we need a way for] users to participate. Historically, these are problems that we have had, in addition to the fact that our model of public utilities is about 30 years old and needs to be modernized in light of the energy transition.

Q. Does that imply a change in the regulations so that only public companies provide energy?

A. No. We have to reduce market distortions and promote competition. We are seeking to improve it with private, mixed and public companies.

Q. What are the market distortions?

A. Tariffs, for example. That is one of the circumstances we face. The model has led them to increase to values that people can no longer afford. We are in a critical situation that is the result of market distortions that we have to review. That is part of what we are doing.

Q. What are you going to do with the Energy and Gas Regulation Commission (Creg), which right now is in an interim situation?

A. The task is to ensure that the commissioners are in place, that the CREG fulfills its function of developing the regulatory framework and to make sure that they participate in reforming the law. After we have this reform of public utilities, let them regulate whatever is necessary. The profiles of these commissioners have very specific characteristics. We are trying to find the right people to perform a role that we believe must be carried out during this time of public service reform.

Q. How was the Ministry of Mines and Energy when you got there?

A. There was a lot of development and important progress. Today, we are showing a lot of results. Many things were consolidated. I have come to breathe new life into it and to guarantee that the plans can be consolidated after the national development plan is approved.

Q. Given the way that Minister Velez went down in disgrace (for alleged influence peddling when she called the airport’s immigration office to let her husband and son go through when they were being processed), do you face a higher moral standard in the Ministry?

A. I think Velez’s situation has to do with several things. One is the machismo in a sector that has always been run by men. It also had to do with the profession; she came from a different sector, and this is a very jealous field. I am an engineer; I know the sector better in terms of concepts and language, and that has allowed us to dialogue better with the companies. That is a pillar of President Petro’s government program. For some people, Minister Vélez did not have the right profile, which affected the development of the first stage, but we are continuing on with the president’s program.

Q. Now that you are in the government, how do you see it from the inside?

A. I see the cabinet as increasingly consistent and articulated. I have felt very welcome; the ministers and the president are in sync. The government is consolidating.

Q. Describe the President.

A. He is excellent at what he does. He knows a lot. He offers lessons in every area; he has the country in mind. He knows what he is doing; he has a project for the country.

Q. Why has his popularity declined?

A. I don’t think that it has… he’s maintained his popularity. In some cases, it declines more, in other cases it declines less. I believe that the levels remain stable. Our task as ministers is to do our job and show results to maintain the government’s credibility. It is not just the president’s responsibility; it is also our responsibility.

Andrés Camacho
Andrés Camacho in his office in Bogotá on September 25, 2023.CHELO CAMACHO

Q. What responsibility do you feel as the Minister of Mines and Energy under Latin America’s greenest president?

A. One of the advantages we have is the role Petro plays at the international level, his global leadership. In my case, the energy transition is at the heart of this political project. It requires doing the task very well, working tirelessly. It is the state policy and an enormous responsibility.

Q. What do you believe to be the change that President Petro is advocating?

A. There are several levels. One is the ability to change people’s daily lives and secure rights, better living conditions, progress and prosperity. That is the fundamental and basic level of what change should be, reaching the people. At other levels, it means that development models must be modified. For example, in this sector, the energy mining model must be modified in terms of climate change. That implies developing new models, a different regulatory framework, a different way of managing [our] relationship with nature, the environment, companies and people. The country’s future must be more harmonious with nature, with the Earth, and adapt to the climate change of the times. There are also other changes that I believe are already taking place: for example, in our current cabinet, half of our ministers come from public universities. Other people are coming to power. These new people who are governing bring new logics, new thoughts, new ways of thinking.

Q. Let’s talk a little bit about your very interesting past. What remains of the revolutionary kid you were in your youth?

A. What remains of that kid is the consciousness that it is necessary to change people’s daily lives, to guarantee that they have rights, that they prosper. Life and humanity are at the center of our project; that is fundamental. I am a humanist. That is what I stand on and what I stand by.

Q. Do you believe that the complete peace that Petro advocates will materialize?

A. Yes, I believe in this government because of that as well. Several dialogues (with armed groups) are taking place at the same time; it’s unprecedented. That probably has not happened since the 1990s. There are possibilities to move forward and work with many actors to get out of the cycle of violence. I have been convinced of peace since I was a boy. Today, I am working for it from [the energy] sector, which has a lot to do with peace. Many places of conflict are also places for developing energy projects. There are many things we have to do [to achieve] peace in Colombia.

Q. Tell me about your years as lead vocalist for the band Komintern 43.

A. When I was very young, I liked punk, rock, hardcore. I was invited to be part of a band and I was in it for about four years. The band was important; it had some recognition in Latin America. During those years, our country was in the midst of very high levels of confrontation; some of us young people were persecuted for aesthetics during the periods of paramilitary activity in the cities. There was repression, ideas were persecuted. Those were great years. I frequently need to sing.

Q. Did you fear for your life under former president Álvaro Uribe Vélez’s government?

A. Yes, I left the country three times when I was a student leader [because] I was persecuted. I was a student representative at the Universidad Distrital, where I received weekly threats. I had to go into hiding. Tragically, this is what has happened to many generations in our country. But I have always believed in democracy and peace.

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