Following Monday’s questionable approval of Chile’s major HidroAysén dam project - a jerry-rigged vote if there ever was one - the administration of President Sebastian Piñera turned police loose on thousands of demonstrators protesting the Patagonia dam project later that evening.
The project’s approval was largely a foregone conclusion: all 12 members of the environmental review committee that approved of HidroAysén on Monday (11 to 1) were appointed by Santiago, and the president’s brother-in-law is a HidroAysén director.
And to make sure the 12 members knew where their Santiago bosses stood, just hours before the vote Interior Minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter praised the project as essential to Chile’s energy future, albeit with energy figures cooked to his liking.
Although several members of the environmental review committee were replaced at the last minute because of very obvious conflicts of interest, they still had participated in the several-year evaluation process thus tainting Monday’s vote, thus tainting the whole process.
Yet despite getting the “yes” vote it desired, the government felt the need to bare its teeth and turn the police loose on protestors.
Some of Chile’s leading environmentalists were clubbed during peaceful protests that spread across the country in Santiago, Valparaiso, Valdivia and Temuco. Among these was environmental leader and former presidential candidate Sara Larraín, who spent the evening in jail.
The local judge reviewing the arrests in Santiago on Tuesday called the police action “excessive and way out of line.”
Larraín, visibly angry, vowed that “Sebastian Piñera’s government will have to assume responsibility for this kind of treatment.”
And it will.
Sen. Antonio Horvath of the Aysén Region, a member of Piñera’s own Renovación Nacional party, called Tuesday for a massive protest against HidroAysén on May 21, the day the president gives his annual state of the union speech.
“Speaking politically, I think the Piñera administration just scored an own goal,” said Horvath, referring to police actions at Monday’s protests.
While these disheartening events unfold in Chile, it is important to note that Germany, one of the world’s most industrialized countries, is moving in a completely different direction.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently announced her intention to become the first leader to transform an industrialized nation from nuclear and fossil fuel energy to renewable power.
In mid-March, Merkel stunned the German public and other governments by announcing an accelerated phasing out of all 17 German nuclear reactors as an immediate reaction to the Fukushima disaster in Japan.
Merkel announced her administration’s plans to shut down the nuclear reactors by 2022 at the latest. She wants to double the nation’s share of renewable energy to 35% of consumption in 2020, 50% in 2030, 65% in 2040, and more than 80% in 2050.
At the same time, the chancellor vows to cut CO2 emissions compared to 1990 levels by 40% in 2020, by 55% in 2030, and by more than 80% in 2050.
This means that the 81 million Germans living between the North Sea and the Alps are supposed to cover their huge energy needs from wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass within a few decades.
Indeed, by 2030 green electricity could be the dominant source of power for German factories and households. Sun-challenged Germany already produces 15,000 MW of solar energy, which compares to Chile’s current total energy production – from all sources – of 13,000 MW.
Thinking Chile’s sun-drenched deserts, windy coastline and run-of-the-river energy potential, most Chileans are scratching their heads, wondering what planet their political leadership lives on.
With a conservative president in Germany leading the way to renewable energy, one can’t help but wonder why Chile’s conservative president is not taking similar action.
Who calls the energy shots here in Chile and why?
It is certainly not the people. Sixty-one percent are already against HidroAysèn. And opposition will only grow, thanks to the police clubs, the jerry-rigged environmental approval process and stupid, sold-out leaders, of all political persuasions.
By Steve Anderson - The Santiago Times
Hidroaysén is a project which contemplates the construction and operations of five hydroelectric power plants, two in Baker River and three in Pascua River, located in Aysén Region, south Chile.
The complex would have an installed power of 2750 MW and a capacity of 18.430GWh of media annual energy, whose investment is estimated in over 3.1 billion US dollars, becoming the most important energy project studied in Chile so far.
The project was approved on May 9th, 2011 by Sebstián Piñera Government authorities. The decision was taken by 11 counselors, in which 10 votes was in favor and only one abstention. However, 27 days earlier the Foreign Inversions Committee already knew the decision, before the entire country.
Environmentalists who question the project argue it will dam around 6,000 hectares in the remote southern Chilean Patagonia. This will have a deep environmental impact in a place as pure as that. The Aysén region is the less populated region in Chile and is famous for its beauty and isolation. An interesting ecotourism industry has been developing in the area lately, which would be damaged by the dams.
The project also includes the construction of a transmission line from Aysén region, all the way to the capital Santiago at an estimated cost of 4.3 billion US dollars.
This will mean power cables and 5,000 towers of 50 meters tall, one every 400 meters, along 2,200km. The effect will be the deforestation of 23,000 hectares, and six national parks as well as 11 national reserves will be damaged.
The dams and transmission lines are forecasted to create a veritable scar the length of half the country. This scar will work its way through six national parks, 11 national reserves, 26 sites designated as priorities for conservation, 16 wetlands areas and 32 protected private areas
The visual impact would be massive.
The social impact would last for years, bringing thousands of people to live and work in Patagonia.
The Chilean Patagonia without Dams group, which gathers 79 national and international groups from Greenpeace to Aysén's bishopric, has displayed a strong campaign.
HidroAysén is a corporation formed by Endesa Chile, subsidiary of the Spanish-Italian Endesea and Colbún SA, which belongs to Matte group, owner of one of the biggest fortunes in Chile. Together, these two companies control 74% of the Central Interconnected System (SIC). With HidroAysé's approval, this will grow to over 80%. A virtual monopoly of private companies operates this strategic power industry. Energy in Chile is some of the most expensive in the world and HidroAysén won't change that, argue environmentalists.