February 15, 2019 / 11:04 AM / a month ago

RPT-Colombia must strictly monitor 'fracking' pilot projects -panel

BOGOTA, Feb 14 (Reuters) - Colombia must implement strict monitoring of three pilot projects that will mark its first foray into “fracking,” an expert commission said on Thursday, before deciding whether the controversial technique for extracting oil and gas can be widely used.

The Andean country does not currently use hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, but President Ivan Duque favors the technique. It is used to extract oil and gas from unconventional deposits in rock formations that do not allow the movement of fluid.

Duque convened the commission last year to study the technique. The commission’s recommendations are not binding, but are likely to influence future government policy.

Fracking breaks up rock formations with pressurized liquid. Its use is credited for booming oil and gas production in the United States, but environmental activists have blamed it for water pollution.

Some local communities and many environmentalists in Colombia are opposed to the use of the technology, and any efforts by the Duque administration to approve it are likely to be met with resistance from left-wing lawmakers in Congress.

Communities in the towns of Puerto Wilches and Barrancabermeja, in Santander province, and San Martin, in Cesar province, must be kept informed as the pilots move forward, the 13-member commission said.

The health of nearby residents must also be monitored and cared for, the commission said. The panel includes geologists, a neurologist and environmental experts.

The government must ensure it is capable of properly overseeing the projects, the commission added.

“Fewer wells at the beginning means less risk and it also allows the government to improve its institutional capacity before it faces expanded development,” said commission member David Neslin, an energy expert and former official from the U.S. state of Colorado, during a presentation of the group’s report.

Any projects eventually approved for commercial use must only go forward with permission from communities, enough environmental data to manage the risk of pollution and guarantees for proper oversight, the experts said.

A trio of anti-fracking groups who attended the presentation in a statement urged the government to suspend the pilot projects because the commission had just three months to complete its report.

State-run oil company Ecopetrol has already requested an environmental license to launch a pilot for exploration using fracking. Ecopetrol says the area where it would use the technology has between 2 billion and 7 billion barrels of oil, triple the amount of the country’s current crude reserves.

Colombia’s private oil producers association has said fracking could generate some $500 million per project per year in taxes, royalties, dividends for shareholders and salaries.

Colombia produces about 860,000 barrels per day of crude. (Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb; editing by Helen Murphy and Leslie Adler)

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