A second hydrocarbon boom threatens the Peruvian Amazon: trends, projections, and policy implications A report by Matt Finer and Marti Orta-Martinez, Environmental Research Letters

A rapid and unprecedented proliferation of oil and gas concessions threatens the mega-diverse Peruvian Amazon. That is one of the central conclusions from a pair of researchers who have, for the first time, documented the full history of hydrocarbon activities in the region and made projections about expected levels of activity in the near future.

The study, published in the peer-reviewed and open-access scientific journal Environmental Research Letters, reveals an extensive hydrocarbon history for one of the greatest rainforests on Earth-well over 100,000 km of seismic lines and nearly 700 wells have resulted in the extraction of nearly 1 billion barrels of oil from the Peruvian Amazon over the past 70 years.

The research reveals that a major hydrocarbon exploration boom took place in the Peruvian Amazon in the early to mid 1970s, immediately followed by an exploitation boom from the late 1970s to the early 80s. The authors warn that the region has now entered the early stages of a second hydrocarbon exploration boom.

"We found that more of the Peruvian Amazon has recently been leased to oil and gas companies than at any other time on record," said co-author Dr. Matt Finer of the Washington DC-based Save America's Forests. "There are now 52 active hydrocarbon concessions covering over 41% of the Peruvian Amazon, up from just 7% in 2003.

The vast majority of these concessions overlap sensitive areas, such as official state natural protected areas and Indigenous peoples' lands.

"Nearly one-fifth of the protected areas and over half of all titled Indigenous lands in the Peruvian Amazon are now covered by hydrocarbon concessions, said co-author Martí Orta-Martínez of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. "And perhaps most disturbingly, we found that over 60% of the area proposed as reserves for Indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation are covered by oil concessions. These uncontacted people are extremely vulnerable to outside illness."

The authors also discovered a number of interesting trends. For example, there has been a steady decline in Amazonian oil production ever since its peak in the early 1980s. In contrast, natural gas production from the Peruvian Amazon has been skyrocketing since 2004 and the start of production at Camisea. 2009 had the lowest oil output in over 20 years, but marked the sixth consecutive year of rapidly increasing natural gas production.

The study then looks into the future with a number of projections. The amount of area leased to oil and gas companies is on track to reach around 70% of the Peruvian Amazon. Moreover, the authors predict a rapid spike of on-the-ground hydrocarbon activity over the next five years, with levels of seismic testing and well production reaching levels not seen since the region's first exploration boom in the early 1970s.

This escalation raises fears about increased environmental and social impacts to such a sensitive and critically important region.

"The first hydrocarbon boom of the early 1970s brought with it severe negative environmental and social impacts," said Orta-Martínez. "Unfortunately, all indications are that this second boom will as well."

Indeed, in 2009 there was a deadly conflict between Indigenous protestors and government forces in Bagua, Peru, largely stemming from government efforts to lease or sell Indigenous lands without their free, prior and informed consent.

The authors stress that one of the more troubling aspects of the new boom is the expanding hydrocarbon frontier, as much of the last remote and pristine tracts of rainforest left in the Amazon are now fair game for oil and gas companies.

"Case in point is the extremely controversial Block 67," said Finer. "This block is located in one of the most mega-diverse and intact corners of the Amazon, but it is slated for major development as it sits on top of over 300 million barrels of probable oil reserves."

Block 67 also overlaps a proposed reserve for uncontacted Indigenous peoples, further highlighting the escalating social impacts as well.

In the end, the authors call for a rigorous policy debate, including a greater analysis of potential environmental and social impacts and how they could be effectively avoided or at least minimized.

For example, the authors highlight Ecuador's innovative Yasuni-ITT Initiative, which seeks international contributions in exchange for leaving the massive ITT oil fields untapped beneath a mega-diverse Amazonian national park. Given that the controversial Block 67 is just across the border from ITT, the authors conclude the paper by suggesting that perhaps Peru employ a similar strategy.

The article can be found in its entirety here.

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