Colombia’s Armed Forces Protect Oil Pipelines, Environment

Colombia’s Armed Forces Protect Oil Pipelines, Environment

By Dialogo
October 13, 2015

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Under the Sword of Honor campaign, the Colombian Armed Forces are working with government entities and private businesses to protect the country’s oil-producing infrastructure from attacks that harm companies, the economy, and the environment, perpetrated by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN).

The goal of the 70,000 Colombian National Army Troops estimated to be guarding the country’s oil pipeline structure is to shield oil infrastructure facilities from terrorist groups, protect the environment, and capture perpetrators of attacks.

Attacks decrease, but fight continues

Since the Armed Forces teamed with government entities and the oil industry to coordinate responses to attacks on pipelines, such assaults have decreased significantly, according to Ministry of Defense statistics. Seventy-three attacks on Colombian pipelines using explosives occurred between January and August 2015, a significant decrease compared to the 109 such attacks that took place during the same time frame a year earlier. That in turn is down from 169 attacks in 2013. Additionally, terrorist attacks in general have also decreased in general since the Sword of Honor campaign was launched – going from 716 in 2012 to 382 between January and August of this year.

Most recently, the Ministry of Defense activated the Sword of Honor campaign response after a major June 21 terrorist attack where alleged FARC operatives detonated explosives on the Trans-Andean Oil Pipeline, spilling 10,000 barrels of oil in the southern department of Nariño. The attack caused massive environmental damage; oil flowing into the Pianulpí gorge fed into the Güiza and Mira rivers, feeding into the municipality of Tumaco's aqueduct and emptying directly into the Pacific Ocean. As a result, about 160,000 residents were without potable water for 18 days.

It was the largest environmental disaster in the past decade according to Environmental Minister Gabriel Vallejo, and exacerbated the damage from a June 8 attack on the same pipeline that spilled 4,000 barrels of oil into the Caunapí and Rosario rivers.

To contain the damage, the Ministry of Defense took a three-pronged approach, according to the Ministry of Defense Public Security and Infrastructure Bureau:

The Special Operations Center for Infrastructure Protection deployed specialized troops to remove anti-personnel mines allegedly set by the FARC after being informed by Cenit, the private company that operates the Trans-Andean Oil Pipeline, of the attack near the 72 kilometer marker on the Pasto-Tumaco road in Nariño.

Within 12 hours, Soldiers cleared the attacked area and secured the zone, allowing workers to commence making repairs. The Army ensured Troops, Cenit personnel, and environmental experts were safe to perform their emergency response tasks.

The Environmental Emergency Response Group (GAMA) and the Nariño Autonomous Regional Corporation (Corponariño) worked together to evaluate the environmentally significant maritime and coastal areas and affected fishing and tourist areas damaged by the spill.

Meanwhile, the Army provided security so officials could conduct tests for the environmental study, which included analyzing the impact the oil spill had on the coast.

Economic losses

For years, the Armed Forces and civilian authorities have battled outlaw groups like the FARC and ELN who attack oil pipelines, in particular the country's oldest: the Trans-Andean and the Limón-Coveñas, which pass through the departments of Nariño, Putumayo, Arauca, and Norte de Santander. Since January 1, Colombian state oil company Ecopetrol has reported 73 attacks on the oil infrastructure in those departments, with spills totaling 54,000 barrels of crude oil, according to General Ricardo Jiménez, National Army Chief of Operations.

“On the one hand, we have the fuel stolen by puncturing pipelines and installing illegal valves, which is used in many cases to process cocaine base,” Gen. Jiménez said. “And then, we have attacks on the economic infrastructure of the country (oil pipelines, oil tank trucks on the roads, electrical towers, and mining camps), which are used to exert pressure on the government.”

In 2014, attacks on Ecopetrol caused the delay or lost production of 2.8 million barrels of crude oil, representing a loss of around 1.3 trillion pesos ($421 million), Gen. Jiménez added.

Environmental damages

On top of those economic losses, attacks on oil-producing facilities greatly damage the environment. Due to southern Colombia’s high biodiversity, the real harm caused by spills in Nariño can only be evaluated months later, according to Luis Alberto Giraldo, Ministry of the Environment Director General of Territorial Environmental Regulations.

For example, in the case of the June 21 oil spill in Tumaco, the Maritime and Coastal Investigation Institute (INVEMAR) reported on August 24 that some of the effects included:

deaths of hundreds of animals from chronic poisoning and asphyxia;

destruction of the youngest and newborn organisms;

decrease in resistance to disease or increases in infections in species due to their absorption of particular quantities of petroleum;

negative effects on reproduction and propagation in flora and fauna;

destruction of food sources for higher species;

injection of carcinogens into the food chain.

The INVEMAR study also determined that the mangrove swamps, the habitat for a large number of plant and animal species, was one of the marine ecosystems most effected by the spill: “In this part of the Colombian Pacific coast, there are nine species of mangrove that form dense forests that cover approximately 138,320 hectares, or 40% of the national lands.”

Special environmental contingency actions

To protect the country’s natural resources, the Ministry of the Environment is establishing an organization to study the impacts of environmental contamination on Colombia's unique ecosystems.

“We have put together an investigations group that includes universities and international organizations to have an economic dimension, allowing for a comprehensive study that discusses the effects on biodiversity, as well as the quantity and quality of the water resources,” Giraldo said. “Currently, we are using the department of Nariño as a pilot case, and the idea is to duplicate that model in other departments, keeping in mind the specific conditions in each and coordinating with government forces to carry it out.”

The Ministry of the Environment also plans on creating an Environmental Liability Fund to study the effects and accurately determine the best solutions for Colombia, particularly with regard to environmental damages linked to terrorism.

“The project seeks support in the form of international cooperation,” Giraldo said.