San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Panel Discusses Country’s Energy Policies

In a country recognized internationally for its natural beauty and conservation efforts, the debate over how Costa Rica should produce its energy is ever-present. Recent announcements by President Oscar Arias’ administration, such as a proposal to end the moratorium on oil exploration in Costa Rica (TT, June 2), have signaled a change in energy policies that have many environmentalists worried.

However, officials will point out, Costa Rica has a demand for electricity that is growing at more than 5% a year. According to the estimate of one government official, that means Costa Rica must double its energy-production capacity in the next 10-12 years.

With an energy portfolio that is 80% hydroelectric, electricity production in Costa Rica varies with the rainfall. A growing use of fossil fuels helps balance low supply in dry periods, but many oppose the unclean technology.

The Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) and private developers continue building more projects, but opposition is growing as well as more and more rivers are dammed (TT,May 26).

Last week, four experts from various fields escaped a rainy Tuesday night in San Pedro, east of San José, and met to discuss the various controversies and issues surrounding Costa Rica’s production and consumption of energy.

Organized by the La Ceiba Association of Ecological Communities and Friends of the Earth Costa Rica (La Ceiba), the June 6 event gathered representatives of two environmental groups, the Environment and Energy Ministry (MINAE) and ICE. The Costa Rica Federation for Environmental Conservation’s energy group spokesman Mauricio Alvarez was present, as was La Ceiba president Gabriel Rivas. Also at the table were Gloria Villas, energy sector director for MINAE, and Alejandro Aguilar, from the ICE legal department and representative of the Internal Worker’s Front, one of the ICE workers’ unions.

Alvarez, who spoke first, called Costa Rica’s current energy model “extremely consumerist.”

The environmentalist said that more “aggressive government campaigns” to slow the national electricity demand should be central to the country’s energy model.

Specifically, he said, the government should discourage the use of private transportation and encourage public transportation.

Alvarez said the nation’s energy model should keep future generations in mind, and respect national parks and protected areas. A bill introduced in the former Legislative Assembly seeks to open national parks to the production of geothermal energy to capitalize on a process that uses the earth’s heat to produce electricity. Much of Costa Rica’s geothermal potential is found near the country’s many volcanoes, many of which are located in protected areas (TT,May 26).

“We believe principally that energy development should respect the environment and communities,” Alvarez said, especially the wishes and autonomy of indigenous communities.

In the process of applying for and developing new energy projects, Alvarez said, the environmental viability of the project should be the principal deciding factor, and not “just one more part of the bureaucratic paperwork.”

Villa, of MINAE, said she coincided with Alvarez’s concerns that the nation’s energy consumption should be more responsible.

She noted that one third of the energy consumed in Costa Rica goes to residential uses, particularly lighting and household appliances such as the stove and refrigerator. She also decried Costa Rica’s dependence on oil.

“Today, we have a problem with the consumption of hydrocarbons in the transportation sector, for being a country that doesn’t produce fossil fuels,” she said, noting that Costa Rica spent nearly $1 billion importing oil last year.

The MINAE energy director said the solution is not easy, and depends as much on Costa Rican society’s response as the government’s proposals.

Villa also noted that many options aren’t economically viable. Local producers of bio-fuels, she said, have asked that the government guarantee the same price that they could get on the international market, which is significantly higher than the price of oil.

“Obviously we have to achieve the sustainable supply of the energetic demand…

and with a greater participation of renewable sources,” Villa said. “This doesn’t depend on politics, but on society and all the actors.”

Alejandro Aguilar, of ICE – the government institute that oversees the production and distribution of electricity in Costa Rica –said that the example of the “ICE Combo” awoke Costa Ricans to the importance of ICE, and showed the country that the institute is susceptible to the manipulation of various interests.

ICE Combo is the name given to a group of electricity privatization bills approved by the Legislative Assembly in 2001. Public reaction boiled over into mass protests and strikes that paralyzed the country and led to lawmakers overturning their approval (TT, March 31, 2001).

Aguilar criticized the current administration’s energy policy, saying that it is a model “imposed from above.”

“We have to stop strictly discussing the energetic aspect, and talk about the planned model for the country,” Aguilar said. The union representative referred to the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) as an example.

“CAFTA itself isn’t bad, but what it does is express in a very clear way the contradictions in our model of development, that one group in Costa Rica wants to impose on another group.”

Under CAFTA, ICE must be opened competition.

This week, pro-CAFTA President Oscar Arias also announced plans to open the monopoly of the National Petroleum Refinery (see separate article).

La Ceiba’s Rivas turned his attention to the global context of the energy debate, and described what he sees as a “militarization of globalization.” Rivas used the example of the war in Iraq as evidence that those in power are going install by force the energy model they choose.

“We are about to enter the peak oil era,” Rivas said, saying that the world’s oil reserves are running out, and competition for what remains will become fierce.

In that context, he said, the question is: who has access to, or controls, the world’s energy resources, and for whose benefit? “Costa Rica is not far from these realities,” Rivas said, adding that in Costa Rica, these decisions would be marked and made by conflict. “The people, with the instruments they have at their disposal, are going to decide. They have to decide.”


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