The good, the bad and the ugly: the agreements made between Presidents Obama and Piñera

On Monday in Chile, President Obama made several agreements with Chilean President Piñera on a variety of topics.  Most of these agreements, for example the new Andean Glacier Monitoring and Research Center, will be solid steps forward and will likely bring multiple benefits to both countries.  Yet, their vague statements about energy efficiency and renewables fell short of what they should have been.  And the agreement to work on “peaceful uses of nuclear energy” will be a step backwards for Chile, unfortunately encouraging the government to waste resources and time exploring the same model of energy dependence on large, centralized plants that has repeatedly led Chile into energy crises.  It also illustrates the fact that Chile does not have a national energy policy now.  The government’s time and resources would be better spent developing such a policy.

Taking a bit of liberty, I have put some of these agreements and their consequences into three categories: the good, the bad and the ugly. 

The Good.

There were several positive agreements inked by Presidents Obama and Piñera regarding education, disaster preparedness and marine protected areas.  An important one that should not go unnoticed was the agreement to create an Andean Glacier Monitoring and Research Center

For well over a year, NRDC has recognized that the need to study Patagonia’s rapidly melting glaciers is a matter of concern not only for Chile, but for the entire worldGlobal warming is melting Patagonia’s glaciers faster than anywhere else on the planet.  That is why we helped support an international symposium last year on the region’s glacial hazards, bringing experts from around the globe to Santiago to discuss the dangers these hazards pose.  The goal was to encourage policy makers to take science into account when making policy decisions.

The proposed hydroelectric complex, HidroAysén, is a clear example of why this is necessary.  As I have written before, the company has failed to appropriately consider the increasingly frequent glacial hazards and floods that are occurring one of the two rivers they plan to dam.  Despite analysis from scientists and technical experts stating that these events could pose a serious threat to the viability of the dams as well as to communities and ecosystems downstream, the government has done nothing to take a more thorough look at the issue.  This is due partly to political pressure being put on the state agencies to approve HidroAysén.  But another reason is that, in Patagonia, the glaciers are only just starting to be monitored.  So until recently, no one had even begun to understand what is happening there and how much it can truly impact large infrastructure, like dams.

With a successful Andean Glacier Monitoring and Research Center, the government can be informed of glacial hazards before they occur, and can take this data into account when evaluating any type of project that could feel the effects of the melting glaciers.  A great place to start would be HidroAysén.  A great time to start would be now.

The Bad.

I hesitate to use the category “The Bad” here, since Presidents Obama and Piñera did discuss energy efficiency and renewables.  However, my colleagues and I have been encouraging to make energy efficiency and renewable energy a mainstay of their message.  We urged them to take clear steps towards attainable, specific goals.  They did not do this, or at least, not enough.

The Presidents agreed that energy efficiency and renewables are important for energy security and environmental protection.  They “valued the joint efforts made by both countries in this area…” and they “committed to work together this year toward a successful outcome in Durban…”  But these are only vague goals and reaffirmations of what they are already doing.  The only concrete action they took was to pledge to launch a U.S.-Chile Energy Business Council to advance clean energy development and business opportunities.

Underscoring the general importance of efficiency and renewables is a good thing.  But Presidents Obama and Piñera needed to actually set specific goals in order to see any real advancement.  The U.S.-Chile Energy Business Council has the potential to be a good start to making quantifiable progress, and the Presidents should be applauded for launching this idea.  However, with much of the world watching these two leaders, they had the perfect opportunity to make serious commitments to clean energy.  And they missed it. 

Furthermore, any talk of clean energy was overshadowed by…

The Ugly.

The Memorandum of Understanding concerning “the Cooperation in the Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy,” signed on March 18th by U.S. Ambassador to Chile Alejandro Wolff and Chile’s Foreign Minister Alfredo Moreno, was endorsed by the Presidents in their joint press conference.  Under this accord, Chile and the U.S. agree to cooperate on the human resources and research in nuclear energy.  The text specifies that Chile “has not made a decision on whether to pursue nuclear power, it has determined that it must fully inform itself on all aspects of doing so in a responsible manner...”  This sounds like a disclaimer, but the mere fact that Chile’s government is considering building nuclear reactors is disconcerting. 

This focus on nuclear draws resources, time and attention away from what Chile needs right now, a national energy policy.  The International Energy Agency’s 2009 Energy Policy Review of Chile specifically suggested that the government conduct an open review of its energy resources to create a strategic national policy.  Instead, Chile continues to build energy plants without any guidance or coherence.

By signing this agreement, Presidents Obama and Piñera signaled that Chile should continue to rely on massive plants and undistributed power to meet its energy needs.  This is simply not the way to go. Chile’s craze to simply build evermore installed capacity to meet the government’s projections that energy demand will double from 2010-2020 and triple from 2010-2030 blinds them to the very real and economical solutions right in front of them:  energy efficiency and renewables. 

This craze to build capacity is also causing Chile’s government to trample over the environmentHidroAysén –the center of the largest environmental campaign in Chile’s history – could be approved as early as April 15th.  This project would destroy over 12,000 acres of pristine habitat in the Patagonia, irreparably alter the Baker and Pascua Rivers, change the lives of the people living there, and open up the entire region to extractive and destructive industry.  That is without even including the damage that the 1300-mile long transmission line needed to bring the electricity to the main grid would incur. 

Also, by approving the massive Castilla coal-fired power complex earlier this year, the government basically said, “sorry, but these 2100 MW are more important to us than the sensitive coast and marine ecosystems that the coal plants will destroy.  And no, we won’t consider alternatives.” 

 Nuclear energy in Chile has other problems.  Creating a nuclear sector in Chile would clearly require large government subsidies, maybe more so than it does in the U.S.  The devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan two weeks ago, and the consequent nuclear crises that are still unfolding there, make the idea of nuclear in Chile, also a seismically active country, even more preposterous. 

Unfortunately, too much of President Obama’s trip to Chile was overshadowed by the nuclear agreement, and the good and even bad accomplishments may suffer for it.  Hopefully, Chileans and their future grid won’t suffer for it as well.