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May 12, 2014

A Calgary-based oil company is now waiting to get the environmental permits it needs to begin drilling in an ecologically-sensitive area at the headwaters of the Amazon River near Iquitos, Peru. Gran Tierra Energy says, "Our mission is to create value for all our stakeholders through oil & gas exploration and production, capitalizing on the global operating experience of our team to build a record of success in South America; in a transparent, safe, environmentally and socially responsible manner."

It is questionable whether that mission is best carried out at the headwaters of the Amazon where other oil companies have in the past made a mess of things. An October 2013 report by Amazon Watch (amazonwatch.org) notes that Occidental Petroleum began drilling in the area in the 1970s, leaving a legacy of polluted streams and forests.

In 2000, Pluspetrol took over Occidental's operations, but its aging pipeline infrastructure created dozens of oil spills every year. At one point, ConocoPhillips held oil rights to 10 million hectares, but pulled out after protests by the Achuar Indians who inhabit the area. In 2012, a citizens' movement in Iquitos, the Water Defence Committee, protested against Conoco's drilling in the Nanay River basin, which provides drinking water for Iquitos' 450,000 residents.

In a recent CBC News report, Gran Tierra Energy said, in effect, "We're not like that. Our drilling operations are environmentally sensitive." Certainly, the oil company's public comments express concern for the quality of life of local residents and respect for the environment. Given their experience over several decades, however, residents are likely to be wary.

Indeed, one needs to ask why an oil company that professes environmental sensitivity would even consider drilling at the headwaters of the Amazon where a major oil spill could have long-term negative consequences for millions of people and could permanently damage a highly sensitive ecosystem.

Last year, Gran Tierra placed a paid insert in an industry magazine boasting that it had "found a series of geological structures of amazing size." For its stated mission to "create value for all our stakeholders," this may be great news. For the people of the Iquitos region, it may prove ominous.

Socially and environmentally conscious "stakeholders" may well choose to think twice before sinking their money into oil drilling projects in ecologically sensitive regions where the lives and well-being of millions of people are at stake.