The Vote to Approve or Reject HidroAysén's Dams Takes Place Today, Amid Controversy and Heated Events

Today at 3:00pm in Chile (2:00pm EST), the environmental commission in Chile will decide whether or not to approve the five mega-dams that HidroAysén has proposed to construct on two of Chile’s wildest rivers in Patagonia, ending this nearly three-year environmental review process.  After four rounds of submitting environmental impact documents, the company has still not presented sufficient, quality information needed for approval.  The glaring gaps and consistent flaws in their data should be enough for the panel to reject the project outright.  In addition, last week a flood of calls against the project and the evaluation process itself were released not only by members of the campaign against the dams, but also by Parliament members, energy experts and government agencies.  If ever there were a project that the environmental commission should reject—and thereby demonstrate its commitment to upholding the law—HidroAysén is it.

The review process began in August 2008 when HidroAysén delivered its environmental impact assessment (EIA) to the Regional Environmental Commission.  The first review of the 10,000+ page document by government agencies, municipalities and civil society in November 2008 was telling:  they submitted thousands of comments about the document’s poor quality, and some agencies stated that the project was in “non-compliance” with the requirements for approval.  HidroAysén should have been rejected then and there.  Yet pressure to approve the dams, supposedly to meet the country’s rapidly growing energy demand, has intensified over the years, and the agencies’ comments grew less and less thorough with every round (the public was only allowed to participate in the first round of review).  As a result, after almost three years, four review rounds, and over 15,000 pages of EIA documents, major flaws still exist in HidroAysén’s dam proposal.  Briefly, they include:

  1. Inaccurately identifying the area of influence of the entire project
  2. Failing to evaluate the cumulative and synergistic impacts of the project (as opposed to its separate parts) – including the 1300 mile-long transmission line that would be built to carry the electricity north to the main grid
  3. Using an inaccurate base line for the studies
  4. Improperly assessing sedimentation on the rivers, and the potential impacts of flooding events and glacial hazards – particularly glacial lake outburst floods – on the dams
  5. Improperly assessing effects on local fauna and flora – particularly the endangered huemul, an Andean deer that is one of Chile’s national symbols 
  6. Poorly addressing the demographic effects of the project on local communities
  7. Failing to establish that the project is even needed, or is the best option among alternatives

Energy experts released an update of their 2009 study last week showing that, “in no realistic scenario is HidroAysén necessary.”  These authors looked at the total installed capacity of planned projects, and the expected energy demand growth rates in both of Chile’s main electric grids.  They found that the government’s ongoing assertion that national energy demand will double in the next ten years and triple in the next twenty is incorrect.   They also found that, in the main grid that HidroAysén intends to feed into and which serves over 90 percent of the population, the overcapacity of planned projects is so great that, even using an aggressive demand rate forecast, HidroAysén and 50 percent of the proposed coal-fired power plants are unnecessary for the country’s future energy security. 

As if these issues were not reason enough to reject the project, recent developments have shed light on irregularities in the process itself:

  • Members of Parliament filed a lawsuit for procedural wrongdoings in the environmental review process, beginning in 2008 and continuing through the present, that they charge are illegal.
  • The Regional Municipal Council of Aysén unanimously voted (with one abstention) to appeal to the Superintendent of the Region, Pilar Cuevas, for greater transparency among the entire process, particularly after the unexpected resignation of the Regional Director two weeks ago.
  • The national Transparency Council has asked for all files relating to HidroAysén’s review from the Agriculture and Livestock Service, due to charges of document censorship.  Other government services face similar charges, such as the National Forestry Corporation , the National Geography and Minerals Service and the Ministry of Housing, whose national office are accused of having deleted the critical, technical reviews of the dams made by the regional employees and replacing them with innocuous comments intended to ease the project’s approval.
  • Conflicts of interest –namely business and familial ties to HidroAysén – among members of the voting panel have forced some to step down.

International calls against HidroAysén have increased in intensity over the past several weeks as well.  Over 16,000 NRDC supporters and e-activists signed a petition to the Chilean environmental authorities asking for the project’s rejection and for the robust growth of better energy options – energy efficiency and non-conventional renewable energy.  (In Chile, the term “non-conventional renewable energy” is used to exclude large hydro above 20MW.) 

For Spanish speakers, this reporter on CNN, Tomas Mosciatti, succinctly describes why the project should not be approved here:

Now, everyone is preparing for the vote in what has become Chile’s largest environmental battle to date.  On Saturday night, special police forces arrived in the Aysén Region’s capital city, Coyhaique, where the vote will take place, creating an ominous atmosphere.

This is clearly not the time for Chile to rush forward and approve HidroAysén’s short-sighted and poorly-planned dams.  Technical data has shown that the project is not necessary, and over 61 percent of the Chilean population is against it.  Let’s hope that this afternoon, the environmental authorities uphold the law, listen to citizens and confirm what seems so obvious:   HidroAysén is not the best option for Chile’s energy future.