Fracking could lead to the expansion of the Barrancabermeja refinery and further jeopardize the human right to clean drinking water

Published by Brent Patterson on

The largest oil refinery in Colombia is located on the Magdalena River in Barrancabermeja, Santander and has a refining capacity of 250,000 barrels of oil per day. If fracking were to be fully approved in Colombia, Ecopetrol has stated $3 billion could be spent to expand the capacity of this refinery to 300,000 bpd.

In July 2019, the Peace Brigades International-Colombia Project accompanied CREDHOS (the Regional Corporation for the Defence of Human Rights) to observe the pollution in the Magdalena River caused by the Barrancabermeja refinery.

PBI-Colombia field project volunteer Yvonne Furrer wrote about her three-hour journey on the Magdalena River and its nearby tributaries in this article.

She highlighted that the trip included an international delegation organized by CRY-GEAM (the Yariguíes Regional Corporation – Social Research Group into Extractives and the Environment in the Magdalena Medio Region).

Pollution from the refinery

At the start of the trip, Oscar Sampayo, a member of CRY-GEAM, showed the group the grey-brown water pouring directly into the Magdalena River from the refinery.

This past April, a Mongabay article quoted Ecopetrol, the operator of the refinery, saying: “All of the oily water from the refinery goes to the wastewater treatment plant for treatment before being discharged into the Magdalena River.”

Local fishers have also attributed the water pollution and deaths of fish to the decrease in the flow of the Sogamoso River (the second largest tributary of the Magdalena River) to the Sogamoso hydroelectric dam built by Isagen SA (now majority-owned by Toronto-based Brookfield Asset Management).

The right to clean drinking water

The Conversation also notes: “Barrancabermeja hosts Colombia’s largest petroleum refinery, which has been operating for just over 100 years. Over that time, local industries have contaminated natural water courses with heavy metals.”

“The plumbing that is supposed to supply the city with fresh water doesn’t reach all areas, meaning that some places lack running water and sewage treatment.”

That article adds: “In the general city strike of 1963, pollution and access to water were two of the main issues. Safe drinking water was also a recurrent theme throughout the city strikes of the 1970s. Even during the worst of the Colombian conflict from the 1980s to the early 2000s, the people of Barrancabermeja were brave enough to continue protesting for the right to clean water, and they still do today.”

The Impala Terminal

The next stop showed those onboard the boat a new port being constructed by Impala Terminals (a subsidiary of the Geneva headquartered Trafigura Group Pte. Ltd.) that Furrer writes is to transport oil and coal on the river for companies including ExxonMobil, Ecopetrol, ConocoPhillips and Calgary-based Parex Resources.

In February 2017, Argus Media noted: “Trafigura’s Colombia subsidiary Impala moved 469,273 barrels of crude in January.”

In February 2019, the general manager of Trafigura Colombia stated: “If you think about shale oil and fracking in the Barrancabermeja and Santander regions and the Magdalena Valley, there is nothing better positioned than the river to help with transport.”

San Silvestre River

Next on the San Silvestre River, the main tributary of the Sogamoso River, the delegation saw an area where several fracking projects are due to start.

Mongabay reports: “The latest threat to the wetlands [around Barrancabermeja], and the ecosystem as a whole, is hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.”

That article adds: “[Local fisher Cristo] Carrascal says he has heard that a large amount of water will be required for fracking operations. That water could come from the wetlands, just as happened with traditional oil drilling activities.”

Fracking on the horizon

Colombia currently produces about 860,000 barrels per day of oil and the Colombia Petroleum Association (ACP) says the four fracking pilot projects (that are expected to begin next year) could generate an additional 450,000 bpd in their production phase.

Three Canadian companies – Toronto-based Sintana Energy, Calgary-based Parex Resources and Canacol Energy Ltd. – are reportedly bidding for these contracts to be awarded in September/October.

Peace Brigades International accompanies at-risk human rights defenders who are challenging fracking in Colombia, builds public awareness in Canada about this situation, and reminds the Canadian state of its human rights obligations with respect to Canadian oil and gas companies operating in Colombia.

To read the full PBI-Colombia article on this boat tour, please click here.

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