More than 20.000 people demonstrated in Arrecife, Lanzarote (Canary Islands), on 24 March 2012 against the offshore oil prospections authorised by the Spanish Government. Photography: Kepa Herrero (Lancelot Digital).
Many people visit the Canary Islands but few bother to get to know them. They are usually considered not as a country or region, or as a community with its own history and complexities, but as ‘a product’, something that is there just to be consumed, mainly by others. A recent initiative by the new conservative Spanish government follows this logic. On Friday 16 March 2012 a proposal by Ministry of Industry, Energy and Tourism José Manuel Soria (born himself in Gran Canaria) was approved, authorising a consortium led by Madrid-based Repsol to explore for oil a significant area just 37 miles offshore Lanzarote and Fuerteventura. They expect to find oil in rock formations 3,000 (9,900 feet) to 3,500 meters below the surface. The objective is to reduce dependence on crude imports and raise money to reduce Spain´s budget deficit. But this time the islanders want to have a say on their political, economic and environmental future.
Ever since Norman nobles conquered Lanzarote and Fuerteventura and subdued the aborigine population to the Crown of Castile, the Canary archipelago found itself in a subordinate position within the capitalist world-system. The Canary Islands have been more dependent on the world’s economic cycles than on Spain’s, and external shocks have regularly affected their economy and environment. Most recently, mass tourism and the related real-state boom abruptly transformed the old rural and scarcely populated societies into highly developed service economies, doubling its population and more than tripling its urbanisation in a very short period of time. As a consequence, the islands’ fragile eco-systems have been and continue to be subjected to strong pressure from growth-oriented policies.
The approval of exploration licenses for oil drilling is the last chapter of this story. It followed the suspension of a subsidy program for new installations of renewable-energy projects as part of the package of spending cuts – a highly contested policy shift. With this decision the Spanish government put the Canary Islands in the race for ‘tough oils’, to use Michael T. Klare’s term. It refers to oil that ‘can only be exploited through costly, environmentally hazardous techniques’.
José María Aznar’s government had first granted Repsol the right to explore the area in early 2002. But local governments objected, and in 2004 the Supreme Court ruled that the permits were illegal, as no serious environmental impact study had been undertaken. According to Repsol, hydrocarbons production could reach 100,000 oil barrels per day. Maybe not too much for world markets, but significant for Spain, amounting to about 10% of its daily crude oil imports, according to 2011 government data. ‘Spain’, Soria stated weeks ago, ‘cannot afford the luxury of disregarding possible sources of energy’, especially when Morocco has already allowed oil exploration on their side of the imaginary frontier. This emphasis on the Spanish interests at the expense of the archipelago has strained the relations with the regional government (a coalition between Coalición Canaria and PSOE) and the cabildos or Island Councils of Lanzarote and Fuerteventura. All of them oppose the explorations and drillings and have announced legal actions.
It is not that the Government of the Canary Islands – which in the past has promoted unsustainable infrastructures and massive urbanisation – has suddenly found a passion for the environment. There is certainly an element of political strife between old partners (José Manuel Soria was the regional government’s vice-president when PP governed in coalition with Coalición Canaria), but the truth is that from the local bourgeoisie’s perspective there is little to win with Repsol drillings. It is the Spanish central government that issues the permits, potential tax revenues will be collected by Madrid and it is very unlikely that oil production will create local jobs on a significant scale. The islands would only suffer the risks, potentially detrimental for tourism and fisheries. In a recent visit to the islands Repsol’s CEO Antoni Brufau tried to appease the regional government by promising the creation of thousands of jobs. But very few islanders really believe this. Canary Islands’ rate of unemployment of 31% ranks among the highest in Western Europe despite the significant influx of tourists in the last years (more than 10 million in 2011), but this is due to structural imbalances that oil production -delinked from the rest of the Canaries’ economy- won’t solve.
The regional government’s incapacity to confront Madrid’s fait accompli has angered many nationalists within the co-ruling party and from other political groups. Some local politicians threaten to revise what many call the ‘colonial pact’ -the centennial Canary Island’s pragmatic integration in Spain after the independence of the American colonies. This pact allows for several fiscal and economic peculiarities, namely low-taxation, free trade and in recent years generous transfers to finance infrastructure projects. Although explicit pro-independence movements are a minority in the region, Spanish Repsol´s triumphant entry offers them a powerful argument: as the Canary Islands is not a sovereign state they cannot decide upon the waters surrounding the islands beyond the 12-mile limit, according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, so waters between the islands are considered international waters. And unlike Portugal with Madera and Azores, the Spanish government has not yet delimited an exclusive economic zone in application of the straight baseline method due to disagreements with Morocco, as well as to the unsolved status of Western Sahara. The sovereignty argument thus puts the emphasis on who decides on the oil drilling and who can benefit the most from the oil revenues.
Stronger opposition comes from the local environmental movements. They denounce the important risks at all stages of oil production, endangering islands that have been declared biosphere reserves by Unesco, that is, commons to be shared by humanity and developed on a sustainable way. Seismic prospection can cause high damage to submarine fauna. Opening well perforations produce waste that spills into the sea, negatively affecting submarine habitats of high ecological value, like the marine seagrass meadows. During oil extraction, materials like heavy metals or aromatic hydrocarbons are released; they can affect the food chain and therefore the human being, causing health damage. Accidents frequently happen, either small spills unnoticed by the media, or huge catastrophes like the BP Deepwater disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. A significant amount of oil is already regularly dumped from oil tanker vessels into the Canaries’ uncontrolled waters. From the perspective of a more human and ecologically oriented economy, the negative externalities clearly outweigh the positive ones, and the Canary Islands get mainly the former.
Other concerns relate to the geopolitical instability linked to oil production, especially if there are US oil companies involved. The Canary Islands, which voted against NATO integration in the referendum of 1986, could however be further militarized under Africom. A cable leaked by Wikileaks revealed that in 2008 José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero’s socialist government already offered to add “Las Palmas to the list of ports where [the US] can take nuclear powered warships”.
Many people in the Canary Islands are now mobilizing on the Internet and in social media, asking for online signatures against the drilling and demonstrating. They demonstrated in the streets in unprecedented numbers on the 24th March, some days before the 29th March general strike against labour market reforms. They thus join a global fight against the extraction of fossil fuels at all cost, whether they are in the natural reserves of Alaska, in Canada or Latin America. If prospection finally confirms the existence of hydrocarbons and drilling starts in a few years, it will still take a decade for Repsol to reach plateau production. A long struggle has started, one that may substantially modify the political and social landscape of the archipelago, hopefully for the better. We will need support for such a big challenge.