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Worldcrunch

Canary Islands Up In Arms As Oil Drilling Looms Off Scenic Shores

Article illustrative image Partner logo Morro Jable, Fuerteventura: Paradise soon to be lost?

LANZAROTE - The photograph looks like something out of a glossy tourist campaign: a surfer, board under his arms, coming out of the turquoise waters that lap against the fine, white sand.

Nothing out of the ordinary, seeing as the shot was taken on the island of Fuerteventura, famous around Europe for its natural beauty and great surfing. But if you look closer at the image, you begin to notice that the dude's skin isn’t brown because of the sun, but rather black from oil.

This is just one of the deliberately shocking images that the activists of Clean Ocean Project have been distributing over the last few weeks on the beaches of the Canary Islands. This oil is a new nightmare for the Canarians since last March, when the Spanish government of Mariano Rajoy, through the Minister for Industry José Manuel Soria López, gave free reign to Repsol, one of the world's biggest oil companies, for a series of tests that should make way for the biggest oil field in Spain. 

“This is a project that puts in serious danger the ecosystem of an area that, for its natural bounty, has been labeled as a Biosphere Reserve,” explains Wim Geirnaer of Clean Ocean Project. “The tests will be done with air guns through the soundwave technique which will inevitably disturb and compromise the lives of the dolphins and whales that flock to these protected areas of the sea."

It’s not only wildlife associations (WWF and Greenpeace) lining up for battle against the Spanish government's decision, but almost the entire population of the Canary Islands, who have taken to town squares in protests rarely ever seen in this archipelago.

Local institutions have also expressed their opposition to the drilling project. From Cabildos (a type of council that exists only on these islands) on the islands of Lanzarote and Fuerteventura, to the regional governments of the Canaries, the “No” to drilling has been unanimous.

“We’re against this project for two principal reasons” explained the Cabildo of Fuerteventura. “The environmental risks, firstly, but then also the possibility of the reduction in tourism. These islands live exclusively on the tourism industry and a project of this nature, with the elevated risk of accidents that it brings with it, could threaten the main income to these islands."

Oil for jobs?

Locals note the "anomaly" of having one of the rare top national leaders born in the Canaries, Industry Minister Minister for Industry José Manuel Soria López, being the man who gave the green light for this project.

The energy giant counters that the local economy is bound to benefit from the drilling project. “We think that the installation could create between 3,000 and 5,000 new jobs,” affirms Kristian Rix, a Repsol spokeswoman.

But Wim Geirnaer isn't buying it. “Everybody knows that the new jobs created require highly trained specialists who, in Fuerteventura, like in Lanzarote, just don’t exist," he said. "This is clearly an operation in favour of a private business and against the interests of an entire community.”

If, like Repsol hopes, the oil can be found, in the space of a few years the multinational will have carte blanche for drilling in an area twice the size of the islands of Fuerteventura and Lanzarote put together. The 20 authorized oil platforms, that have the capacity to extract 144,000 barrels of crude oil per day, could be constructed quite close to the coast, for a simple reason: 60 kilometers from shore, in the middle of the Atlantic, is the border that separates Spanish waters from Moroccan.

Morocco's government has already expressed its aversion to the project and a border violation could create problems for Repsol, as well as the Spanish government.

Twenty-five kilometers from the black sandy beaches of Lanzarote, and 10 km from those in Fuerteventura. Such should be the minimum distance that the drilling can reach a depth of 5,000 meters -- the same maximum depth as the BP platform of the Deepwater Horizon, which exploded in 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico.

And so the mobilization continues: A petition has already gathered 30,000 signatures and the Canarian government has appealed to the United Nations as well as the European Union to stop the project.

Still, the government in Madrid has announced that Repsol can begin drilling in the space of a few weeks. While the battle heats up, the Spanish government has cut incentives for the desalinisation of water (the only source of potable water for the islanders) and blocked the project for a windmill park on Gran Canaria. The islanders consider the moves from Madrid as a clear warning: oil or nothing.

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