Teófilo de la Torre inherits the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry (MINAET) at a critical time for Costa Rica. Demand for energy and natural resources is growing at a rapid rate, while government agencies are having difficulty keeping pace. The country is grappling with ways to meet a promise made by the Arias administration to neutralize its carbon emissions to combat global warming, and is struggling to find the funds to consolidate and maintain its famous national parks.
De la Torre, 72, is the man charged with addressing these issues over the next four years, as well as with implementing ambitious new plans for Costa Rica’s environment.
De la Torre is the former head of the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) and has helped direct the Central American Electric Interconnection System. The Tico Times recently sat down with the new minister to ask him how he will address the country’s environmental and energy challenges.
TT: What are your priorities in these four years?
De la Torre: We have four fundamental things that we want to accomplish during this government. The first is ordering our national and marine territory. The second has to do with water. Thirdly, we are going to focus on energy and how we use it. The fourth area, which perhaps encapsulates all of them, will be our efforts to combat climate change.
How will MINAET order the national territory?
The territorial part will involve, fundamentally, developing regulatory (zoning and land use) plans to define how we are going to use the territory of each canton. The plans we have today were approved a long time ago, and they need to be updated. We are completing work on the land registry that will allow us to identify protected (natural) areas, agricultural lands, and urban areas.
This will help us define where the cities can grow, what we have to preserve, and what land we need to save for agriculture. Over the next four years we are looking for 10 or 20 municipalities to adopt new regulatory plans each year.
Costa Rica has very abundant water resources. However, population growth is starting to cause pressure on the availability of water. Fifty years ago, we had a million inhabitants in Costa Rica, but today we have 5 million inhabitants, plus 2 million tourists per year. They consume much more water.
Agriculture uses a lot of water for irrigation, and the hydroelectric plants use water as well. There are important discussions about the levels of the aquifers in the metropolitan area and along the coast. There are fears that if we continue to take out water, we could exhaust these aquifers.
All this requires an integrated water policy that addresses both surface and subterranean water sources. The last time we passed legislation regarding water in Costa Rica was in 1942. For 78 years, there has been no modern law regarding water. One of our primary goals is to achieve consensus in Congress in order to approve a modern water law.
Some communities feel they come second to private and foreign investment when it comes to access to water supplies. What is your message to them, and how do you assure water to Costa Rican communities?
The new water law must assure that the first priority is human consumption. Second (in order of priority) is irrigation, and finally, commercial services and generation of electricity. The important thing is to accept that water is a limited resource. As a limited resource, it should be utilized in the most optimal form for the (benefit of the) entire society.
We must remember that Costa Rica has to have a balance. We can’t just protect; we also have to develop. We have to develop infrastructure and human activities. We have to take care that en route to development we conserve our natural resources. The philosophy is this: The water law is a fundamental factor. But ordering the nation’s territory also plays a part by better defining where to develop and where to protect (water sources) in each cantón and province.
How are you going to reform the energy sector?
We are on a crusade to change how we use electricity in Costa Rica. Today we use a great quantity of renewable energy, namely hydroelectric, supported by thermal (petroleum-based) energy. This support is small, but it’s costly. If the price of oil continues to rise, we are going to want our electricity to be produced solely from renewable sources.
The government will encourage actions so that this model becomes one that uses 100 percent renewable energy. This is not something you do overnight, but in these four years we want to accomplish half of this goal, so that within eight years, we are using only renewable energy.
What is being done now to reach the 100 percent renewable goal, and to decrease dependence on oil?
To start, the construction of three large hydroelectric plants has helped. ICE is finishing a 130-megawatt plant on the PirrisRiver (in the central Pacific region). We are going start construction on a 300-MW plant on the ReventazónRiver near Siquirres. And in the coming years, we hope to build a 630-MW hydroelectric plant in the Diquis region in the southern part of the country. These works will give us a strong backbone to move toward 100 percent renewable energy use.
Several attempts to open up National Parks to the generation of geothermal energy have failed. Are you in favor of opening up these parks for this purpose?
We are looking at this carefully. We believe that geothermal energy is an important resource. First of all, it’s renewable, and secondly, it’s safe. These plants don’t emit gas, rather, vapor. Geothermal will be a part of the solution in terms of reaching 100 percent renewable energy.
It’s possible that a great amount of geothermal energy is within our national parks.
If that’s true, in my opinion, we should analyze intelligent options to extract the vapor that don’t require building a plant within the park.
Another idea is that whoever extracts the energy pays a tax to fund the national park. We don’t have a solid proposal (in this area), but we are studying it.
In terms of being 100 percent renewable, what is the role of the general electricity bill that is before the Legislative Assembly?
It’s a tool to make being 100 percent renewable a reality. It permits the mobilization of (private) actors in the production of electricity.
We also hope that consumers will have a role and that they can install small renewable plants in their houses and farms, and can integrate their production of electricity into our public grid. This law is really important to advance in this area.
Where will climate change efforts be focused during your four years?
In this area, our efforts will be directed toward reducing emissions of greenhouse gasses as much as possible. Costa Rica emits around 14 million tons of CO2 per year while our forests capture around 4 million tons. We will continue to plant and protect forest and work to avoid fires and floods. We must also boost our renewable energy capacity, which will lower the production of CO2, and replace transportation that uses petroleum with transportation that uses electricity. The agricultural sector, which uses a lot of harmful agrochemicals, must also play an important role.