State agencies should not slacken their standards during next round of environmental reviews for large hydroelectric projects in the Patagonia

It is more important than ever for Patagonia’s state agencies to maintain their integrity and independence from commercial pressure as they begin an intense period reviewing Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Addenda for two major hydroelectric proposals.

Friday afternoon, the agencies received Energía Austral’s First Addendum to its EIA for its proposed 600 MW hydroelectric dam project referred to as Rio Cuervo.  On October 29th, HidroAysén, the company proposing to build five dams on two of Patagonia’s wildest rivers, will submit the Second Addendum to its EIA for its 2750 MW mega-dam proposal.  The same government agencies are charged with reviewing both of these documents, and therefore have two important and substantial tasks before them.  They have just 15 working days to read, assess and present comments on each Addendum.  (An explanation of the EIA review process is available here.)  So one week after finishing their analyses of the Rio Cuervo Addendum, they will have to begin reviewing HidroAysén’s Addendum.  If history is any indication, they will have their work cut out for them:  HidroAysén’s EIA was over 10,500 pages, and its First Addendum was 5,000 pages. 

HidroAysén first submitted its EIA in August 2008.  After state agencies and civil society filed literally thousands of criticisms pointing out how the document lacked accurate and sufficient information, the Regional Environmental Commission granted the company time to submit an Addendum in which to address these concerns.  When HidroAysén delivered that First Addendum in October 2009, state agencies again found over a thousand problems with the document (which I summarized here).  The Commission granted the company time to submit a Second Addendum to answer those observations, which is due at the end of this month. 

Throughout the process, HidroAysén has failed to provide some essential information, including:

- the impacts of the 1200-mile long transmission line needed to carry the dams’ potential output to the demand further north.  In fact the line, which would be one of the longest in the world, is not mentioned in the EIA or First Addendum.  This flies in the face of international standards, which require two such intimately linked components to be evaluated together.

- a demonstration of the need for the project in the first place.  Even after a 2009 technical study proved that Chile does not need HidroAysén for a secure energy future, and updated data backs that conclusion, HidroAysén has not shown that this is a necessary project.

- an evaluation of the costs and benefits and proof that the project is the best option another requirement of international institutions.  This is especially timely, since the government and private sector are both pushing for strong non-conventional renewable energy growth.  

- a lack of accurate and specific environmental data, as exemplified by the company’s lack of due concern for the effects of climate change on the region’s glaciers.  An international symposium recently took placed in Santiago where global experts addressed precisely this concern.  Warming temperatures are melting Patagonia glaciers faster than before, which is increasing the occurrence of glacially-sourced floods on the Baker River. 

The environmental approval of the Barrancones coal-fired power plant in the end of August, proposed for construction next to a protected marine reserve, was an illustrative example of what can happen when state agencies bow to pressure and approve harmful and unnecessary projects despite an insufficient EIA.  In that case, the strength of the instantaneous public outcry against the Environmental Commission’s approval forced President Piñera to intervene personally, effectively making the Commission appear weak and raising questions about what exactly the Presidential role in these proceedings should be.

So far, throughout the Rio Cuervo and HidroAysén reviews, state agencies such as the General Water Directorate, the National Forestry Corporation and the National Geology and Mining Service, have reviewed the EIAs admirably and with integrity.  And they should be commended for that.  But now more than ever, they should not let down their guards or slacken the strong environmental standards they have demonstrated in the review processes for these dam proposals before. 

On the contrary, if, after over two years and 15,500 pages, HidroAysén still does not provide a quality and thorough document answering the thousands of criticisms it is supposed to, the agencies should reject the proposal outright.  The same goes for the Rio Cuervo project. 

No more chances.  No more wasted time.  Chile has an array of better options, like geothermal, solar and efficiency, that can provide energy security and make the country a true regional leader in modern energy development.