BOGOTA, April 29 (Reuters) - Colombia’s energy minister said on Tuesday there may be grounds for declaring a state of emergency if an indigenous community does not lift its five-week blockade preventing state-run oil company Ecopetrol from repairing a key crude pipeline.
The Cano Limon-Covenas pipeline owned by state-run oil company Ecopetrol was shut off on March 25 after a bomb attack blamed on leftist rebels, prompting the company to declare force majeure on at least 25 delivery contracts.
The U‘wa indigenous community close to the ruptured section of the pipeline have prevented engineers reaching the tube while they press their demands for it to be re-routed away from their territory and for a planned oil project nearby to be scrapped.
“Really this case almost warrants a declaration of emergency by the national government,” Amylkar Acosta told local radio station Caracol, adding that the government was still open to resolving the situation through dialogue.
Declaring an emergency situation is a legal term that enables the government to suspend certain laws in extenuating circumstances. The minister may have been referring to the possibility of using the armed forces to access the pipeline.
“It’s clear that we won’t be able to reach the target of an average 1 million barrels per day. This month the impact has been greater because of the stubbornness of this community in preventing the repair of the tube,” Acosta said.
The Cano Limon and Caricare fields operated by New York-listed Occidental Petroleum, have been shut down since the explosion for lack of a way to transport their usual joint crude output of around 67,000 barrels per day.
Acosta said President Juan Manuel Santos was aware of the seriousness of the situation and would “make the best decision” on what action to take.
“There is a general interest that has to take precedence over an individual interest, respectable as it may be,” he said.
Santos may be loathe to use force to resolve the stand-off with less than five weeks until elections in which he will seek a second four-year mandate.
Colombia’s leftist rebels have been intensifying their attacks on the country’s oil pipelines, with 259 attacks last year alone. Oil companies in Latin America’s fourth-biggest oil producer usually manage to repair the damage within a few days and avoid major disruption.
Colombia has been holding peace talks with FARC rebels since late 2012 even as combat between the two sides continues.
A Colombian rebel group on Sunday stopped and set fire to 12 vehicles transporting contractors and equipment to repair the pipeline on behalf of Ecopetrol.
No one was killed or injured in the attack by the National Liberation Army, or ELN, in a rural area in Norte de Santander province, near the border with Venezuela. The area is a hotbed for rebel activity. (Reporting by Peter Murphy and Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Peter Murphy; Editing by Chris Reese)