Colombia May Be First Oil-Rich Country to Quit Fossil Fuels

Brazil’s former president was laughing at me. I was sitting opposite 76-year-old Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, in an overly air-conditioned studio in São Paulo this March, interviewing him for a story on Brazil’s October elections, for which he is leading the polls. I had just asked Lula if he would be interested in signing up to a bold climate pledge made by Gustavo Petro—then the leftist front runner in Colombia’s 2022 presidential race and, as of this week, the nation’s president-elect. As part of his campaign, Petro vowed to immediately stop issuing new permits for oil exploration—a big deal in a country where oil makes up 40% of exports, and 12% of government income. Petro also asked Lula, his closest regional friend, to come along. He would.

“Look, Petro has the right to propose whatever he wants,” Lula said, smiling and shaking his head as if we were discussing an eccentric old friend. “But, in the case of Brazil, this is not for real. In the case of the world, it’s not for real.”

It just got even more real for Colombia. Petro, a one-time leftist guerrilla, won 50.47% of the vote in Sunday’s second round vote, narrowly defeating a populist businessman who took 47.27%. When he is inaugurated on August 7, Petro will no longer issue new oil permits. Next, he will attempt to create a deadline of 12 years for previously approved exploration to end. Legislative approval would be required. Petro’s advisors say oil produced under those existing contracts is enough to satisfy domestic consumption—if exports are cut—for “at minimum” 23 years if needed. The government promises to expand renewable energy infrastructure long before oil runs out.

How radical is Petro’s plan on oil exploration?

For critics, Petro’s oil policy amounts to “economic suicide.” Many warn his plan to boost agriculture and tourism won’t be enough to make up for lost oil export earnings, potentially leaving a big hole in public finances. As a result, analysts have forecasted a substantial devaluation in the peso against a dollar due to falling investor confidence. According to oil industry organizations, production might fall too rapidly to support Colombia’s demand for alternative fuels. The country will have to import to keep its economy afloat.

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Such concerns are voiced by politicians and fossil fuel advocates all over the world, and they have created a global stalemate on oil: almost all of the world’s top 33 oil producers have pledged under the Paris Agreement to try to limit global warming to an average of 1.5°C over the preindustrial era. Scientists say that no one has set timelines for ending oil production to achieve that goal. To have even a 50:50 shot of achieving the 1.5°C target, according to a March report by the International Institute of Sustainable Development (IISD), rich countries need to stop producing oil and gas by 2034, and countries in Colombia’s middle income-bracket must do so by 2043. In climate terms, Petro’s two-decade production phase-out is not ambitious—it’s just about acceptable.

The Ecopetrol Barrancabermeja refinery is home to storage tanks. It was opened Tuesday, February 15, 20,22.

Bloomberg/Getty Images

In political terms, though, Petro’s goal is radical. “This would be absolutely head and shoulders above what other countries are doing,” says Kevin Anderson, a scientist at Manchester University’s Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research, who led the IISD study. Anderson claims that Norway still offers dozens of companies new exploration licenses each year. The U.K. plans a fresh round oil and gas contracts, even though their governments claim to be leaders in climate change. “These are both incredibly wealthy countries and would remain incredibly wealthy [without oil and gas production]. But they are demonstrating an almost complete disregard for climate science.” Petro’s oil policy, he adds, “is the sort of leadership we need on climate change and there’s very, very little of it around.”

One does not want to become the first one to stop earning oil. Belize is one of the very few countries which has placed an oil moratorium. In recent years it was the only country where oil contributed over 1% to GDP. And leaders don’t want to be accused of risking their countries’ energy security—a fear heightened by Russia-E.U. Tensions have been building over natural gas ever since the Ukraine conflict. “Angela Merkel decided to close all [of Germany’s]Power plants made of nuclear fuel. And today, Europe depends on Russia for energy,” Brazil’s Lula told me. As a means to protect Brazilians against global price shocks, he has promised to build new infrastructure for oil refining in Brazil.

Vision for the Future

What global circumstances could have helped Petro to convince a large number of Colombians that his anti-oil platform was a good idea? According to Claudia Navas, a Bogotá-based analyst for consultancy Control Risks, Petro didn’t present his oil plan as a stand-alone climate policy, and, on its own, it probably wasn’t a decisive factor for most voters. Rather, the oil phase-out is part of a comprehensive “vision for change” in Colombia, which appealed to working class people who have been excluded from Colombia’s previous economic development, Navas says. After his victory, Petro urged fellow progressives in Latin America “to stop thinking that a future of social justice and wealth redistribution could be built on a foundation of high oil, coal, and gas prices.”

Petro can also point out that renewables are a huge opportunity for Colombia. The country produces nearly 70% of its electricity with hydropower. Colombia’s diverse climates also make it a good candidate for wind and solar energy, as well as green hydrogen production. These sources together could enable Colombia to produce clean energy in the future, instead of oil.

In Barrancabermeja, a northern oil town with a strong leftist tradition, residents appear to have trusted that Petro’s plans won’t leave them jobless, voting overwhelmingly for him. As he congratulated the president-elect, the town’s mayor expressed hope that the area would not lose its “energy capital” status. “We hope that your energy transition proposal will open job opportunities for the industry that has historically sustained Barrancabermeja and the country’s economy.”

None of this is to say that fears for Colombia’s economy are unfounded. Petro must match his grandiose rhetoric by presenting a plan to expand low-carbon industries in order to replace the fossil fuels and generate revenues. This will be done both nationally and locally. Petro’s performance will weigh heavily on leaders in other oil producing nations like Brazil. “The implementation will determine if Petro’s policy generates greater fear in the region about the energy transition,” Navas says, “or pushes people towards it.”

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