Amazon reef: BP and Total set to drill for oil near newly discovered coral reef

BP and Total are planning to drill for oil near a recently discovered coral reef off the coast of Brazil, Unearthed can reveal.

Together the oil majors own five deepwater exploration licences in the Foz do Amazonas (Mouth of the Amazon River) basin and are expected to be granted permits to begin exploratory drilling early this year – once their environmental impact assessments are approved by the Brazilian government.

The nearest of these blocks is just 8 km from the reef, which was was described by National Geographic as “one of the most surprising finds in modern sea research” when it was announced last year.

The scientists who discovered it are worried that an oil spill could dramatically affect the coral reef and say the Brazilian ministry of environment, IBAMA, should require the companies to submit new environmental studies fully addressing the potential risks to the ecosystem.

Total and BP told Unearthed that the existing environmental studies acknowledge the reef and said they plan to proceed without further risk assessments.

© Greenpeace

Ultra-deep water drilling

According to speculative estimates by the Brazilian government, the Foz do Amazonas basin could hold up to 14 billion barrels of oil.

Total has identified nine potential sites for the initial round of exploratory drilling in its five blocks. BP also owns another block in the basin and says it plans to begin exploration towards the end of 2017 or early 2018.  

All of BP and Total’s blocks are in ultra-deepwater, with the first two drilling sites in depths of 1900m and 2400m far exceeding the 1500m that Deepwater Horizon was drilling in at the time of the disaster.

The news comes after Unearthed last year revealed details of a leaked BP report, outlining how a litany of failures in the way BP manages critical engineering information may be increasing the risk of major accidents at the oil giant’s plants across the world.

Scientists’ concern

The discovery of the reef has raised concerns that oil exploration in the area poses a threat to a vast ecosystem that isn’t yet understood.

In a paper published in Science the scientists who made the discovery said: “The environmental baseline compiled by the companies and the Brazilian government is still incipient and largely based on sparse museum specimens.”

“Such large-scale industrial activities present a major environmental challenge, and companies should catalyze a more complete social-ecological assessment of the system before impacts become extensive and conflicts among the stakeholders escalate.”

Dr Nils Asp, one of the scientists, told Unearthed that he is worried about the impacts of oil exploration on the reef: “The main concern is related to the possibility of oil spills and how dramatically this could affect the reef, as well as the mangrove coast of the region, which is ecologically highly connected with the reef system”.

A spokesperson for Total said: “We are well aware that there is a coral reef system located close to the Amazon mouth and fully understand the need to preserve it, as it is a unique ecosystem. Before the scientific publication you refer to, Total had already performed an extensive environmental characterization in the area where the blocks are located. Total has complemented the initial study after Moura´s scientific paper – although Total had identified the reef system beforehand, during the Environmental Impact Studies”.

Amazon Reef Corais da Amazônia
© Greenpeace

A unique discovery

The reef – which is believed to be over 600 miles long and stretches from the southern tip of French Guiana to Brazil’s Maranhão State – lies beneath the thick plume of muddy water where the Amazon pours into the Atlantic Ocean.

The discovery amazed scientists because the murky waters shield the ocean floor from sunlight for long periods of the year.

But rather than use photosynthesis, most of the corals in the Foz do Amazonas appear to rely on chemosynthesis, a process in which organic matter and energy is produced from carbon dioxide, water and other inorganic substances – without the presence of light.

Dr Asp told Unearthed that the discovery is a significant one: “This reef system is important for many reasons, including the fact that it has unique characteristics regarding use and availability of light, and physicochemical water conditions; it has a huge potential for new species and biotechnology; it has a very large extension; it is important to fisheries as well, which is an important socioeconomic aspect of the Amazonian Coastal Zone.”   

Amazon ReefCorais da Amazônia
© Greenpeace

Another member of the team, oceanographer Patricia Yager, told the National Geographic that the reef contains some of the most amazing animals she has ever seen on an expedition.

Endangered and endemic species

The region is also home to species that don’t exist anywhere else on earth, such as the Amazon river dolphin (Inia geoffrensis) and Amazonian manatee (Trichechus inunguis). 

According to Total and BP’s environmental assessment, endemic species such as these “are particularly vulnerable to extinction if their habitat is impacted”.  

Both the Amazon river dolphin and Amazonian manatee are categorised as “vulnerable species” by the IUCN, which means there is a high risk of extinction in the wild.

Several endangered species are also present in the area, including the critically endangered hawksbill sea turtle.

American Manatee (Trichechus Manatu) in the AmazonTrichechus manatu - Peixe-boi-marinho
American Manatee (Trichechus Manatu) in the Amazon © Greenpeace

Carry on regardless

IBAMA is expected to approve the environmental studies submitted by Total and its partners in the coming weeks.

And, despite the fact that these studies were submitted before the discovery of the coral reef was announced, BP and Total have ruled out conducting fuller assessments of the impact that exploration activities or an oil spill could have on it.

A spokesperson for BP told Unearthed: “The reef system you refer to has been known since the 1970s; the recent 2016 study contains more detail about the system.

“The environmental impact assessment for the block, which was submitted in 2015, acknowledged the presence of the reef system c. 35km away from the block in water depths up to 120m – far shallower than any point in the block (2400-3400m water depth).”

Contrary to BP’s claims though, the reef was not known about in the 1970s – scientists suspected there was a reef in the region for decades, but coral was only discovered in 2014 and announced last year.

Total is the lead partner and operator in its five blocks, with a 40% stake – BP and the Brazilian state-owned oil major Petrobras each own a 30% share.

BP is also the operator of another block each in the area, together with Petrobras. The British oil major says it plans to begin exploration in late 2017 or early 2018.  

London-listed mining firm, BHP Billiton, owns two deepwater blocks in the Foz do Amazonas, while Petrobras owns two blocks that appear to directly overlap the reef.

IBAMA, the Brazilian government offshore oil and gas regulator, failed to respond to a request for comment.