San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Oil drilling talk sparks protests in Costa Rica

Protesters rallied Saturday morning at San José’s Plaza de la Cultura and outside the historic National Theater against an announcement last week by U.S. company Mallon Oil that it would seek an exploration and drilling contract for a large gas and oil block in Costa Rica’s northern region. Despite the sizzling morning temperatures, some 150 protesters carried signs that read “No to oil exploration” and “Don’t destroy our beautiful Costa Rica.”

“We can’t allow our government to continue to sell our country to [satisfy] the greed of multinational companies,” Fabian Pacheco, of the group Oil Watch International, shouted through a megaphone.

“We are selling off our most precious resources for the sake of profit. It is our responsibility to stop this corruption and block the government from selling Costa Rica,” he said.

In 2000, Mallon Oil won a 20-year concession for exploration and production of oil and natural gas in northern Costa Rica, but some 200 court appeals filed mostly by environmental groups have until now blocked the project from advancing. Last April, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court rejected the last of those appeals.

The company has invoked the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) to pressure Costa Rica’s government into signing a drilling and exploration contract. In the past seven months, company representatives sent letters to Costa Rican officials warning that the country could face “legal, economic and international consequences” if the 11-year-old exploration contract is not honored. The first letter was sent November 2010 to Foreign Trade Minister Anabel Gonzáles, and a second one was sent March 31 to Costa Rica’s ambassador in Washington, D.C., Muni Figueres.

Costa Rican lawmakers José María Villalta, of the Broad Front Party, and Juan Carlos Mendoza, of the Citizen Action Party (PAC), attended Saturday’s anti-oil rally, along with Luis Diego Marín, regional coordinator of the environmental group Preserve Planet. The three warned that studies on the potential environmental impact of oil and gas drilling are lacking.

“If you were to go to the Environment Ministry’s National Technical Secretariat and request a copy of the environmental impact study for this proposed project, you’d find that there isn’t one,” Marín told The Tico Times. “It’s just another example of our government’s hypocrisy. They claim to support the development of renewable energy and then they announce weeks later that they’d support oil and gas exploration.”

During the two-hour weekend protest, attendees handed out fliers and chanted anti-oil slogans while marching through downtown San José. On Avenida Segunda, a main transit route through the city, protesters blocked traffic and scattered coal across the pavement. Chants of “No to oil” echoed off nearby buildings.     

President Laura Chinchilla said last week that exploration would be limited to “just natural gas, leaving oil exploration out of the contract.”

But environmental groups say they oppose any type of gas or oil projects in Costa Rica.

“People always claim oil and natural gas will result in development or progress, but development always comes with destruction of something else,” said Inge Kitzing, a rally attendee. “Protests have been used to stop several projects in the past, including the Crucitas gold mine [in the Northern Zone], and we are not going to allow this project to destroy our environment either.”

For more on this story, see the June 18 print edition of The Tico Times.

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