Offering frequent news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Ecuador wants to "keep the oil in the soil"

Located deep within the Amazon basin, Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park is not only home to the world’s largest living rodent (a dubious honor), it also contains some of the world’s most endangered and beautiful animals, the jaguar and the ocelot. Although it’s a small country, Ecuador is one of the most biologically diverse, with fifty percent more plant species than in all of North America.

It is an unfortunate coincidence that such treasures lie above Ecuador’s largest undeveloped oil reserves, the Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) oil block. Ecuador's thirty years of experience with the harmful effects of oil production have inspired environmental activists and Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa to create a unique campaign to keep those reserves in the ground, or as they like to say, "to keep the oil in the soil.” It’s an unusual plan that involves getting paid to keep carbon sequestered in the ground, in order to protect natural resources and to help push the world into a post-oil economy.

Ivonne Yanez, an environmental activist from Ecuador, spoke about the plan with Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman in Copenhagen last week. Yanez explained that in exchange for leaving around one billion barrels of oil under the ground, Ecuador is asking wealthy nations to pay it $350 million per year, about half of Ecuador's expected annual revenue from the reserves, or to excuse that amount in national debt. She considers the exchange to be "a contribution to humanity.” Spain and Germany have already agreed to donate, but the United States is under pressure from the oil industry not to commit.

If the plan succeeds, and Ecuador leaves “the oil in the soil”, the plan would protect not only Yasuni’s forests, but also the local water quality and the existence of some of the Amazon’s last indigenous people. Copenhagen climate conference attendees will be glad to know that it would also prevent approximately 430 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions from being released into the atmosphere.

Is oil more valuable underneath the soil than in barrels? Ecuador is gambling that it is.

President Correa leads a country where six in ten people live in poverty despite a large oil economy. He is taking a chance that the world will put a higher value on biodiversity and reduced carbon emissions than on fuel, and at the same time he is looking for a way to whittle down Ecuador’s over $10 billion in foreign debt. Just today, Correa surprised investors by announcing that he may default on this debt. President Correa said at a news conference:
A country that spends twice as much on foreign debt as it does on education cannot develop.
Ecuador is full of surprises. While defaulting on debt involves risks, its innovative plan to “keep the oil in the soil” and its advice to other nations to “keep the coal in the hole” and “the tar sands in the land” could nudge nations to take another look at the real costs of oil production and consumption. The world is better off just leaving some oil where it is (like that in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge) and working harder to develop new sustainable energy sources. Fossil fuels are finite and we are getting closer and closer to the day when there won’t be enough to meet the world's energy needs.

I like the idea of a small nation leading the others to solve two of the world’s biggest problems: climate change and vanishing fossil fuels. It’s a gutsy move.


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