Riesco Island conflict: Who decides Chile’s energy future?

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Punta Arenas Mayor Vladimiro Mimica spoke for many when after a vote last month on the highly controversial Mina Invierno coal mine project proposed for Riesco Island in southern Chilean Patagonia he stated that the central government in Santiago is “ignoring the opinions of the regions and its citizens.” 
“We are not opposed to projects that bring jobs and development to the region,” Mimica said after the Magallanes regional environment commission approved the project Feb. 14. “However, we are opposed to an economic model being imposed upon us without discussion, analysis and participation by all those who will be affected.”
The US$480 million project backed by Copec, one of Chile’s largest fuel and forestry companies, and Ultramar, a Chilean shipping company, is aimed at constructing the first of up to five mines on the nation’s fourth-largest island next year.
Proponents say the project, slated to produce up to 6 million tons of coal annually over the next 25 years, will help Chile cut down on coal imports. Those imports, they say, might otherwise increase dramatically, given the country’s construction of new coal-fired power plants.
But Chilean environmental groups condemn the coal-mine push as a step toward further dependence on the dirtiest fossil-fuel energy source, and they question the manner of the decision.
“They approved this project in a hurry, with little advance notice to the public, to avoid more public scrutiny,” says Ana Stipicic, an environmentalist whose family owns a property on the island near the project and who has led the Alerta Isla Riesco opposition campaign.
Authorities endorsed the project on the first day available to do so, despite having until mid-March to make their final decision. Stipicic and environmental groups have filed an appeal with national environmental authorities. They say if that fails, they will go to court.
“We had a small glint of hope that at least some of the authorities would vote with their conscience, instead the appointees [of Chilean President Sebastián Piñera] are following orders from the Piñera government in Santiago, which is pushing for approval of the project no matter the environmental consequences.”
Indeed, Piñera had already included the Mina Invierno project in his regional plan for Magallanes and Antarctica that he announced in November 2010.
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According to official statistics, Chile imports more than 90% of the 5.5 million metric tons of coal it consumes annually. And with ten new coal-fired power plants under construction and another five awaiting approval, demand for coal is likely to increase significantly.
The coal to be mined on Riesco Island, located north of the city of Punta Arenas, is sub-bituminous—a variety that experts consider a greater air-quality threat than other, higher-grade varieties of coal.
Moreover, the coal will be mined in massive open pits, 500 hectares (1,200 acres) wide and about 180 meters (590 feet) deep, with each mining pit equivalent in size to about 72 football stadiums.
Environmental groups raise concerns not only about the public-health impacts and greenhouse-gas implications of increased coal combustion, but also about mining’s potential effect on 74 at-risk species of fauna. These include penguins, whales, sea lions and several rare birds, many of which enjoy some protection inside the island’s Alcalufe National Reserve and the nearby Francisco Coloane Marine Park.
Nicolas Butorovic, a climatologist at Magallanes University in Punta Arenas says he testified recently to environmental authorities that the contamination model included in the environmental impact study for the project was deeply flawed. He notes the company stated in its study that the maximum wind velocity on the island was 39.6 kilometers (24.6 miles) per hour. Yet Butorovic, who has been studying climate trends in Magallanes for more than 15 years, says that maximum wind velocity in the region is commonly accepted as between 90 and 150 kilometers per hour.
“This project will operate every day, 24 hours a day,” Butorovic told Patagon Journal. “The wind impact, spreading toxic coal dust on ranches, livestock and all those living on the island, is assured,” says Butorovic. “The officials were made aware of the mistake, yet they rushed to approve the project with the model as is for political reasons.”
A recent study conducted by Chile’s Austral University in Valdivia also warned that wind-blown contaminants from the mine would foul the habitat of the 10,800-plus penguin colony at the nearby inland sound Seno Otway, one of the area’s major tourist attractions.
Much like the debate over building large dams on Aysen Patagonia, a core issue in the conflict over Riesco Island is whether their exists the political will and vision in Santiago to make Chile a leader in alternative energies such as wind, solar, and geothermal.
The current governmental refrain is that Chile must double its energy sources over the next ten years. Therefore, Chile Energy Minister Laurence Golborne says the country must be open to developing any energy source “that complies with environmental norms.”
Still, the August environmental approval of a coal-fired energy plant at Punta Choros, which would have been sited a mere 25 kilometers from a fragile marine reserve near the northern coastal city of La Serena -- until Pinera himself overruled regional authorities and intervened to stop the project -- demonstrates that the efficacy of Chilean norms in protecting the natural environment is often questionable.
Technical studies from University of Chile experts also show that Chile already has more than enough generation projects approved and in construction at this very moment to meet its energy needs through 2025.  As such, there is no need to take a short-sighted view to Chile’s energy future and rush into approving uber-environmentally-destructive projects like Mina Invierno at Riesco Island -- nor the immense Castilla coal plant recently approved for Punta Cachos in Chile’s north.  
Photos by Evelyn Pfeiffer for Patagon Journal

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