It’s been a week of sunshine and rain, rain that was as fine as mist and gently soaked the ground and turned our green valley into somewhere like Wales for a while, then a tropical downpour which started with black clouds piling up and then everything melted into liquidity, including the outline of the Meditation Hill. For me that day, indoors with my eyes glued to my laptop screen, the first indication of rain were the drops that started tapping on the roof, soon turning into a thunderous drumming. In between the rainy days, sunshine encouraged walks. One, towards the valley we discovered on Christmas Day, reacquainted us with Long-tailed Tits, Crested Tits and Sand Martins, and gave us better views of our very own Common Buzzard (we have claimed the buzzard for ourselves, you see). On another I saw a Red Admiral on the stony path, a butterfly I’d never seen before. Its colours were astonishingly rich and deep but nothing in the books came close to its vibrancy. It took some searching before I was able to give it a name.
I like to know what things are. I also like to know what sentences mean. I don’t like it when things don’t make sense. Things not making sense is what drives me crazy, and is probably why I’ve worked as an editor for all these years: trying to make things make sense. From making sense it’s a short step to truth and beauty, in my book. Proper words in proper places, as Jonathan Swift said.
So I hope you will come along with me while I try to make sense of something: what’s happening around here with regard to oil exploration. First, let me confess I’ve taken the Zombie idea in the blog title from a writer called Bill McKibben, who had a piece in the Los Angeles Times this week (19 January 2016). He writes so clearly and makes such perfect sense that I’m going to borrow a few sentences from him, though best of all is if you read the piece itself:
Even as global warming makes it clear that coal, natural gas and oil are yesterday’s energy, two centuries of fossil fuel development means new projects keep emerging in zombie-like fashion. In fact, the climactic fight at the end of the fossil fuel era is underway. In statehouse hearing rooms and far off farmers’ fields, local activists are making desperate stands to stop new fossil fuel projects, while the energy companies are making equally desperate attempts to build while they still can. … Unfortunately, fossil fuel companies have the clout to keep politicians saying yes. … The money, however, is only part of it: the whole process is on autopilot. For many decades the economic health of the nation and access to fossil fuels were more or less synonymous. So it’s no wonder that laws and regulations favor business as usual.
Zombies in Portugal
In the national election in October 2015, with its slow and compromised outcome, the leader of one small party made it into parliament: André Silva of PAN (Pessoas, Animais e Natureza: People, Animals and Nature). He’s very much not a zombie, so perhaps I haven’t started at the best place here. He is a strict vegetarian – in English we’d call him a vegan – but he says he doesn’t look like one because he’s the chubby sort (‘Sou um tipo gordinho’). Question-time in parliament takes place every two weeks. On 15 January 2016, O Gordinho asked O Gordo (as I’m choosing to call PM António Costa) to have ‘the courage to break with the old paradigm of fossil fuels’. In reply O Gordo declared that ‘the oil contracts in place have to be met’, that ‘prospection has to go ahead’, that ‘it is absolutely essential for the country to know what its natural resources are’, and that therefore ‘the government will continue prospecting for oil’. (Note: O Gordo got left out of the Paris COP21 talks because the named Portuguese delegate was not him but his predecessor. So perhaps he hasn’t heard of climate change?)
Three days earlier, an interview with my favourite fool, Paulo Carmona of the ENMC (combustible fuel entity), was published by a paper called Sol. In this Mr Carmona declared that ‘drilling for oil is just like drilling for water’, that in the event of an accident with natural gas, no problem, ‘because by definition it just evaporates into thin air’, and that ‘with all this investment, never mind if we find oil or not, at least the state is going to know its subsoils really well’. (The declared investment of oil companies in this region so far is 58 million euros, which of course they’ll want back in commercial rewards.) Paulo Carmona also said, in the ‘clarification’ meeting I attended on 12 January, that explorations so far had shown evidence of hydrocarbons, but they were not of commercial interest. (So stop looking, then?)
All of this borders on the barmy, until you remember that we are dealing with zombies here and they cannot be expected to make sense.
The Minister for the Sea, Ana Paula Vitorino, is reported in Postal on 25 January as having said that ‘no economic reason would compel the state to compromise its natural resources’, and that:
the state’s duty is to protect the territory and its communities from damage. However, there would be no harm in knowing what there is in terms of minerals, gas, oil . . . And no economic activity should be prejudiced just because, in the end and only in theory, it might do environmental harm. Although of course there can never be any breach in relation to the requirements of our natural environment.
You couldn’t make it up.
The president of oil company Partex, which, with Repsol, has the concession for the Algarve offshore sites, says that in October or November this year they will start drilling, adding that ‘the oil price will have to help’ – giving us normal people hope that the current floor-level price of oil might be a deterrent. On land, contracts are held by Portfuel. They say they have invested 15 million dollars, and warn that if they go ahead in prospecting for oil and natural gas then their costs will be inflated by 40 million dollars. (So don’t do it then?) Their methods of extraction will undoubtedly include fracking, but they are keeping quiet about that.
Good news is that the government has now said it will not issue new contracts for oil exploration. But it will continue to respect those currently in force. The existing contracts, issued without any public oversight, come with their own clauses that guarantee them perpetual exemption from any future laws; their own built-in non-obsolescence. That’s an almost perfect definition of a zombie.
As of Sunday we now have a new president: centre-right candidate Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, who won with a considerable majority. He helped write Portugal’s constitution in the 1970s after the dictatorship had been brought down. When campaigning to be elected mayor of Lisbon in 1989, he jumped into a dirty river to raise awareness of environmental issues; he didn’t get the mayoral gig but I like that he did a river-jump. He’s a television personality and a consensus man. As the president, he has limited powers, though he does have the power to order reviews of contentious legislation. I don’t know if it’s worth hoping for anything from him, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed.
Oh, and in the latest World Travel Awards, the winner of Europe’s Leading Beach Destination is: the Algarve. Good luck with that, everyone, if oil exploration starts.