On August 2nd, the journalist André Borges, of the Brazilian newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo, brought to light a case so absurd it seems like fiction. For almost 30 years, Petrobras, a semi-public company whose main shareholder is the Brazilian government, has been hiding a gigantic amount of equipment and pipes in huge submarine warehouses in the ocean near Rio de Janeiro.

That’s right. From 1991 to 2016, without any type of environmental license and at the risk of causing serious damage to areas of natural reefs, the company was throwing machines and pipes that were out of use in six deposits on the seabed. There are 1640 pieces of equipment, including more than 1400 km of piping in these warehouses, according to the Brazilian environmental inspection agency (Ibama). About half of this equipment can no longer be reused: that is, it has become garbage.

Ibama has known about this irregularity for at least 12 years. At the request of Petrobras, it has never released the information publicly, despite recognizing that the affected region is marked by “high environmental complexity” and having already fined the company R$ 2.5 million (about US$460,000).

According to Ibama, Petrobras was also responsible for an average annual movement of about 700 km of equipment – equivalent to the installation of no less than four platform systems for production.

This means that, for almost three decades, the oil and gas company carried out an intense and clandestine activity on the seabed, at the risk of damaging an area essential to marine life on a stretch of the Brazilian coast.

The story gets even worse. Since 2016, the Federal Public Ministry (MPF), equivalent to the Federal Prosecutor, has been trying to make Petrobras establish an appropriate destination for its rubble, but so far its request has not resulted in any concrete action by the company to correct the problem. The agreement currently being discussed defines that the company would begin to clean its mess only in 2022.

An incentive for environmental irregularity

It is interesting to note how flexible the inspection agencies have been toward measures so clearly disrespectful of public institutions, the environment and communities that depend on marine life to survive.

It would be unfair, however, to say that the company never offered an answer to the charges brought by Ibama and MPF. As André Borges’ article reveals, Petrobras was willing to pay financial compensation of R $ 7.74 million (US$ 1.42 million) for the damages caused to the environment in almost 30 years of illegal operations under the sea. That amount represents less than 0.02% of the company’s profit in 2019, which was more than R$40 billion (equivalent to US$9.1 billion at the time of the announcement).

Once the agreement is signed, Petrobras estimates that it will take five years to clear the areas of the deposited material, according to estimates by the company’s own technicians. In a nutshell, the irregularities that began in 1991 would only be corrected in 2027, 36 years later.

Now, putting all this into perspective, doesn’t it seem that environmental disrespect pays off for Petrobras?

It would be an intriguing story if it were, in fact, part of a series or a book about large destructive corporations and complacent enforcement systems in a fictitious country. In one of those film reviews websites that use stars and few words to classify movies, we would perhaps see terms such as “ingenious,” “provocative” and “disturbing” associated with such a story. As an absurd fact in the real world, however, the most accurate words to describe this plot would seem to be “depressing,” “revolting” and “symptomatic of how fossil fuel companies operate”.

350.org will follow the story and demand answers! Join us on this journey!


Photo credits:

Petrobras headquarters, in downtown Rio de Janeiro – Photo by Thomas Hobbs on Wikimedia

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