Chile's Government Passes the Buck on HidroAysén, Dealing yet Another Blow to the Project


Chile’s current government officially handed HidroAysén’s political fate over to incoming president Bachelet’s administration yesterday, dealing yet another significant blow to the controversial mega-dams project and another clear victory to the majority of Chileans who oppose it. The Committee of Ministers, the highest administrative authority here in Chile, announced their highly-anticipated decision to not rule on appeals to the dams’ approval, but rather to ask for more studies from the company which will delay the ultimate decision for another year or so. As Bachelet will take office in just over a month and she has already repeatedly said the project is not viable and will not have her support, this delay is a strong sign that HidroAysén will not be a part of Chile’s energy future. Instead, the focus recently has been increasingly on the country’s booming renewables sector, which is already generating almost a quarter of the energy that HidroAysén would have.  

A bit of background:

In May 2011, after three years of review, HidroAysén’s five mega-dams received their environmental approval. Just weeks later, local citizens and civil society groups of the Aysén region in Chile's stunning Patagonia, where the $10 billion 2,750MW project would be built, filed 34 appeals containing over 1,000 observations with administrative authorities, citing reasons why the project should not be approved. The Committee of Ministers reviewed these observations for two and a half years – an unprecedented delay here – before calling a surprise meeting yesterday morning to make their announcement.

In the meantime, HidroAysén’s two parent companies, Colbún and Endesa Chile, have stopped actively pushing the project, and the political tide has turned against these dams.  

Details about the decision:

The Committee of Ministers announced that they have reviewed 32 of the appeals, but are requiring HidroAysén to conduct new studies on two issues: the hydrology of the two rivers on which the five dams would be built, and the impacts of the 5,000 workers who would migrate to Aysén to build the dams.

Yet the committee’s decision is insufficient. They have identified two areas where HidroAysén did not provide enough information, but there are many other issues identified in the observations where the necessary data is equally lacking. These include (but are not limited to) the impacts of the dams on: national parks such as Laguna San Rafael National Park; the endangered huemul, a native deer that is also the national symbol of Chile (akin to the Bald Eagle in the U.S.); native fish species in the two rivers; local tourism; and the local culture of Patagonia. HidroAysén also did not adequately address the area’s seismic risks or the potential impacts of climate change, or provide a relocation plan for potentially affected people.   

        The Baker River, one of the two rivers HidroAysén would dam in Patagonia

What the decision means:

Coincidentally, I was in Aysén yesterday for this major announcement, and the people who oppose HidroAysén – or any mega-dam in Patagonia, for that matter – all seem to agree: the decision is a triumph for the people of Aysén and Chileans across the country, the majority of who oppose this project. The time it will take to conduct these two studies so that the next Committee of Ministers can convene and offer a final ruling on the project will offer a window for two key changes.

First, that time is more than enough for the Piñera administration—which has dodged taking on the political costs of this unpopular project—to leave, and the Bachelet administration—which has bluntly come out against HidroAysén—to take over.

Second, it gives even more time to Chile’s sustainable renewable energy projects to continue their remarkable growth. The country’s solar, wind, geothermal and mini-hydro resources are world-class, and the market is responding. The two graphs below show the incredible advances the sector has made over the last two years:



With a new law requiring that 20 percent of national energy generation comes from renewables by 2025, data that more renewables can bring economic and social benefits to the country, and additional significant potential for energy efficiency advances, it is clear that large, conventional dinosaur projects like HidroAysén simply have no role in Chile’s future.