OPIC Approves $200M Bolivian Loan

Washington - The Overseas Private Investment Corporation approved a $200 million loan today for a gas pipeline in Bolivia, a project opposed by environmental groups and some U.S. lawmakers.

OPIC, which promotes U.S. foreign investment by providing risk insurance, said the project will include "unprecedented measures to safeguard the environment."

These include an independent audit of project compliance with environmental requirements, environmental training for all employees involved and assignment of an independent engineer to oversee the project.

The pipeline, an Enron-Shell venture, would transport gas through eastern Bolivia to a power plant in Cuiaba, Brazil. It would cut through the Chiquitana Forest, described as "among the most floralistically diverse dry forests in the world" and home to several endangered species such as jaguar, ocelots and marsh deer.

OPIC said the project would promote development in both Bolivia and Brazil and "will promote the use of clean, natural gas and enable other power plants in Brazil to switch from diesel fuel, reducing annual carbon dioxide emissions by as much as 475,000 tons a year."

In addition, Enron and Shell committed themselves to spending more than $20 million to develop and implement a regional conservation plan for eastern Bolivia over the next five years.

However, conservation groups said new paths through the forest will open the way for poaching, logging, hunting, farming and settlement. They say the project violates a commitment President Clinton made in a 1997 speech to the United Nations when he called for a ban on infrastructure projects in primary tropical forests.

One opposition group, the World Wildlife Fund, urged in a statement that "the gas pipeline be built on an alternative route that is available and will spare the forest."

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., initiated a letter by 25 members of Congress urging OPIC President George Munoz to drop the project. He is the senior Democrat on the House Resources Committee.

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