Chile repeals approval for Patagonia’s HidroAysén mega dams

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Published On : Tue, Jun 10th, 2014

Plans to dam two pristine Patagonian rivers scrapped on environmental grounds following years of mass protests — but backers likely to appeal the decision.

Río Pascua was one of two rivers due to be dammed as part of the HidroAysén project which was cancelled on environmental grounds this Tuesday. Photo via‏ @CristianOrion/Twitter

Río Pascua was one of two rivers due to be dammed as part of the HidroAysén project which was cancelled on environmental grounds this Tuesday. Photo via‏ @CristianOrion/Twitter

The controversial HidroAysén mega dam project had its environmental approval revoked Tuesday after a committee of cabinet ministers voted unanimously to uphold complaints of local communities, small businesses and green activists.Ministers cited insufficient research into the impact of the five hydroelectric dams on the ecosystem and communities of the Baker and Pascua rivers which are located in the remote and rural Aysén Region in Chilean Patagonia.

Environment Minister Pablo Badenier led the committee which reviewed 35 legal cases lodged against the mega dam project, the overwhelming majority of which were brought by local communities potentially affected by the plan.

Badenier said a principal factor in the committee’s decision was the “near complete inexistence” of a plan for relocalization of communities set to be displaced by the flooding of large tracts of land.

The committee overturned the decision made by the administration of former President Sebastián Piñera in 2011. The ruling can now be appealed at the Valdivia Environmental Court. HidroAysén insiders previously described this as a likely course of action in the event of an unfavorable decision at the hands of government ministers, according to local press.

Advocates claim the project would have generated up to 20 percent of the country’s energy needs by the end of the decade. Politicians across the aisle have expressed concern at Chile’s energy capacity.

Last month Energy Minister Máximo Pacheco — who was among the committee to rule against HidroAysén on Tuesday — warned of the need to act in the face multiple threats to the country’s energy capacity such as growing requirements, insufficient infrastructure, high energy prices and lack of competition in the sector.

Pacheco’s dire assessment of Chile’s energy situation was hit upon by Dep. David Sandoval of the right-wing Independent Democratic Union (UDI) party who criticized him for “yielding to the pressure of the streets.”

“The energy minister himself said just a few weeks ago when he visited the Aysén Region that Chile has no oil, no gas and no coal, the only resource we have is water,” Sandoval told press, adding that the country faced a huge challenge to meet future energy needs.

Although hailed by environmental groups, including Greenpeace, the decision to cancel the mega project has also drawn criticism from the opposition who claim it will lead to increased energy prices.

Despite sitting as a member of the upper house environmental commission, Sen. Iván Moreira (UDI) downplayed ecological concerns citing the potential impact on energy costs.

“The big winners here are the environmentalists but the big losers are the consumers,” he told press following the government’s decision Tuesday. “Currently there are few energy projects in the country so electricity costs will rise and these will affect ordinary people most.”

Some clue to the government’s plan to tackle energy prices — currently considered the highest in Latin America — came last month when the Bachelet administration announced plans to invest in non-conventional renewable energy while also banking on the North American shale gas boom to cause a downturn in domestic costs.

By Sam Edwards
Copyright 2014 – The Santiago Times

About the Author

Sam Edwards
Sam Edwards
Sam is editor-in-chief at The Santiago Times. He has covered global stories including the Iquique earthquake and reported on Chilean current affairs for media such as Al Jazeera and Vice News. Contact him at sedwards@santiagotimes.cl or follow him on Twitter @SamShepEdwards