20 years after the Prestige …. and the oil spill continues

Text: Martintxo Mantxo
Photo: oil spill in the Marañón river (Peru) in September 2022. Photo: Julio Arirúa, indigenous leader of the Kukama San Francisco community.

It is 20 years since one of the biggest environmental and social disasters on the Iberian peninsula: the sinking and spill of the Prestige in 2002.

This anniversary coincides with the celebration of the Climate Change Summit, COP 27, in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. Although the recent climate emergency has focused on emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, this is by no means the only environmental and social impact. We have been reminded of this by a new campaign in the UK, Just Stop Oil, before the COP and now. JSO demands the abandonment of all new oil exploitation by the British government, something that should be extrapolated to the whole Planet. Indeed, this is the demand of the main international climate institution, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in its April 2022 report. JSO’s new action offensive has caught British society off guard. In the last three days Just Stop Oil has focused on stopping traffic on one of the UK’s busiest motorways, the M25.

Just Stop Oil action, November 2022.

On 13 November 2002, the Prestige crashed, spilling 63,000 tonnes of crude oil. A further 14,000 tonnes remained inside. On 19 November it broke in two and sank on the high seas. The spilt oil spread along the entire Cantabrian coast, as well as the Portuguese and French coasts, causing a major environmental crisis.

20 years later we remember the man who was responsible for finding solutions to the Prestige crisis, the then government spokesman, Mariano Rajoy, who, despite his negligence, became president. The Basque government’s leaders, such as Josu Jon Imaz, Minister of Industry, Trade and Tourism in the Basque Government, also parade through the same doors. Lately, the concept of revolving doors has taken hold in society. I wonder if his management of the disaster was a reason for him to join the oil company Repsol, first to preside Petronor and now the main firm.

Nunca Mais demonstration in A Coruña (plataformanuncamais.wordpress.com)

We were surprised (for the better!) to see that 20 years later, that platform that was created for the crisis,  Nunca Mais (Never again), is still active. Nunca Mais was the platform from which the citizenship was articulated to demand accountability, but also from which so much citizen effort was coordinated to alleviate a situation that neither the government nor the companies undertook: the removal and cleaning of the tar (crude) from the sea and the rocks.

Twenty years later, neither the aftermath of the spill nor the causes that led to it have been overcome. Because the direct cause is the breakage of a ship in bad conditions, and the next one is our fossil dependence and the need to bring it from far away, by sea with such high risks. Nunca Mais denounces that despite the Prestige disaster, there is still a daily average of 38 oil tankers and ships with other dangerous goods in the same area. This is why we conclude that the risk was not stopped, as it can be repeated at any time.

20 years later, among the activities programmed by the Nunca Mais platform we find the premiere of a documentary ‘20 anos de dignidade‘ (20 years of dignity). We are looking forward to seeing it! Likewise, there are those others affected by the oil industry, the community of Meatzaldea, who in their efforts to make themselves heard are also disseminating the film ‘Cuerdas‘. In this case, the affections come from the Petronor refinery, the Basque subsidiary of Repsol. This short film is a candidate for the best fiction short film at the Goya awards and will be premiered in Muskiz on 18 November. It will undoubtedly help to raise awareness of some of the many effects of oil dependence.

In fact, although the Prestige disaster is the focus of our attention, it was not the only one. There were also six other disasters since 1970: the tankers Polycomander (1970), Urquiola (1976), Andrios Patria (1978) and Aegean Sea (1992), and the Casón (1987) with highly toxic chemicals. In 2019, the Blue Star ship carrying hazardous chemicals also ran aground off the Galician coast, once again demonstrating the vulnerability of the area and the lack of measures to restrict marine traffic there. Because the average of one serious accident every five years forces us to rethink the circulation in this area, the transport of these substances, our consumption, our dependence and finally the model itself.

Spills, a global scourge

But spills on this anniversary are still a reality all over the world, all of them, like the Prestige, caused by the system’s and our dependence on fossil resources. We recently witnessed one of the biggest gas leaks in history, under the Baltic Sea, from the Nord Stream pipeline. Actually, there were 4 leaks. However, if we were able to see it, it was because the gas created a white haze in the water when it occurred underwater.

While continuous releases into the atmosphere go unnoticed. It is estimated that 380 million metric tons of methane are released annually before use, while the Nord Stream leaks are estimated at 100.000 to 500,000 tons. It should be remembered that the gas that has been used as the main energy carrier in recent years contains mostly methane, which has an 80% greater global warming effect than other gases (see «Millones de pozos de petróleo abandonados están perdiendo metano«).»

This leak made headlines in the current climate and energy crisis, but in 2011 there were already reports of oil and gas spills in the North Sea at a rate of one per week. Such a leak would have major environmental impacts at sea. According to the report Don’t gas Africa – The Fossil Fuelled Fallacy (P 19) now published for COP27, «When gas dissolves in water, for example, it becomes toxic to marine life and can kill shrimp and other shellfish» (we understand that also for other wildlife and vegetation). But there is also the risk of a large fire, which would be an even worse consequence, as happened last year near the Ku-Charly platform, or as happened with the Deepwater Horizon also in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

Methane leak captured by Nasa (JPL-Caltech)

With this accident, it is worrying to note that in the face of such events, companies have no way of repairing their pipes, except by expelling their entire contents!

The latest oil spill was recorded on 4 November in the Argentinean Patagonia, in the area of Vaca Muerta (Argentina), one of the areas most affected by oil exploitation, where oil is extracted in a non-conventional way. As usual, the company was quick to assure that the spill was contained, but as the Observatorio Petrolero Sur (OpSUR) demonstrated, satellite images showed that the spill had exceeded the limits of the exploitation.

The Observatorio Petrolero PUINAMUDT 1 reported a spill from the Norperuano pipeline in the Loreto region (Peru) on 22 October affecting the Sapuchal and Huapapa rivers, as well as the Tabacal and Capinurí lakes, and the Marañón river. These are sources of water for use and consumption for the Kukama community of San Pedro de Urarinas. This was the second spill affecting this community in 2022, the previous one being in March. But before that it also suffered similar incidents in 2014, 2016 and 2018.

Spill in Loreto (Peru) (Photo: Observatorio Petrolero PUINAMUDT)

On 23 September, a spill occurred in the Cuninico river, which then reached the Marañón river, one of the most important tributaries of the Amazon under Petroperú’s responsibility. The territory of the Kukama people was affected and with it their health and food security of their families. The community of Cuninico denounced the lack of water and abandonment by the state2 , and on 1 November they began protests to denounce the lack of water, blocking the passage of boats in their corresponding area of the Marañón River.

As we have said, spills in the Peruvian Amazon, as well as in the Ecuadorian, Bolivian and Colombian Amazon, are constant. The Peruvian state acknowledges more than 1,002 spills in the jungle and on the coast in the last 30 years. In January this year, a spill also occurred near the Repsol refinery in Ventanilla, near Lima. The accident provoked a huge citizen mobilisation that questioned the actions of the oil companies and institutions and the fossil fuel dependency.

Stopping oil exploration in Argentina and DR Congo

In the meantime, we continue organising, coordinating and overcoming borders and market obstacles, trying to disseminate information and trying to put a stop to the fossil fuel nonsense. Just Stop Oil!

Because within this drama, communities and struggles also have their successes. In Argentina, too, a large movement called Atlanticazo has opposed oil exploration and subsequent offshore exploitation by YPF, Shell and Equinor. Among the many consequences of this activity, we also must include (offshore) spills. This movement has already paralysed the activities, as they did in the Canary Islands, and now, in October, the Federal Court Number 2 of Mar del Plata ratified the measure.

Atlanticazo (argentina.indymedia.org/ Agencia Andar)

Also in the Democratic Republic of Congo, local and international organisations initiated a legal action against the French oil transnational Perenco on 9 November. In 2016, the French civil code was amended to include the notion of «environmental damage» (préjudice écologique) as a new basis for civil liability. The plaintiffs have used this legal innovation to claim for the first time acts of pollution that occurred abroad. In this case, they are demanding that Perenco should repair the environmental damage caused in the DR Congo, such as air, soil and water pollution through illegal gas flaring, spills from old pipelines and oil installations, the incineration and burial of oil waste without prior treatment…

20 years after the Prestige spill, the fossil fuel industry (oil and gas) continues to spill and cause death in communities, ecosystems and the planet. But we also continue to stand up to it and look for alternatives.


1 PUINAMUDT: Pueblos Indígenas Amazónicos Unidos en Defensa de sus Territorios (Amazonian Indigenous Peoples United in Defence of their Territories). observatoriopetrolero.org


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