Latin America


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. In Brazil, the discovery of huge oil deposits has prompted a patriotic outpouring with Brazilians celebrating the country's rise as an oil power. Indeed, Brazil believes it may become one of the world's top four or five oil producers within a few years, but a recent spill 200 miles off the country's famous beaches has brought home the pitfalls of deep sea drilling.

NPR's Juan Forero has that story from Rio de Janeiro.


JUAN FORERO, BYLINE: The motor coughs to a start and Alexandre Anderson guides his boat, christened Man of the Sea, through a marsh toward open water.


FORERO: Soon, he and two other fishermen are laying down about 2,000 yards of net within sight of Rio's famous Sugar Loaf Mountain. These days, though, the effort is hardly worth it and, as the fishermen pull out the net, they realize that, once more, there's only a few scrawny fish.

Anderson blames it on years of well documented oil spills and leaks. There's no scientific study to prove oil in the water has killed off the fish. Still, there's an oily sludge that laps up against Anderson's boat and that's enough evidence for him. And what worries him, as Brazil cranks up offshore production, is the possibility of a disaster.

ALEXANDRE ANDERSON: (Foreign Language Spoken).

FORERO: A spill here would be like BP's, he says, referring to last year's calamity in the Gulf of Mexico in which five million barrels were spilled. Such blunt talk has been rare in Brazil since billions of barrels were discovered in recent years. Instead, Brazil is moving fast, developing the so-called sub-salt fields more than 200 miles off the coast of southern Brazil in waters that go down up to two miles. The investment already tops $200 billion.


FORERO: A commercial for Petrobras, the state controlled oil company, celebrates the new discoveries. Petrobras, which is developing the fields, is a leader in deep sea drilling, producing one of every five barrels in the world that comes from ultra-deep wells. And the director of the government office regulating the oil industry, the National Petroleum Agency, says Petrobras is sparing no expense to ensure safety.

Magda Chambriard says the company also has the ships, the know-how and the resources to deal with a spill.

MAGDA CHAMBRIARD: What I'm saying to you is that Brazil is not a beginner in offshore activities. We have a lot of experience in these.

FORERO: Still, the Brazilians' sense of security was shaken in November when a field operated by Chevron spilled 3,000 barrels some 230 miles off the coast of Rio de Janeiro state.

Chambriard says it was still unclear what caused the spill, but she says she was irked that Chevron claimed the spill was caused by, quote, "a natural leak through the sea floor."

CHAMBRIARD: We are very disappointed with the way Chevron deal with the crisis.

FORERO: Ricardo Cabral de Azevedo, a petroleum reservoir engineer, says tough regulations and Petrobras's long experience mean that the chance of an accident is small. But Azevedo is an experienced researcher who does work for the oil industry and he says there is cause for concern because Petrobras and other companies here are going deeper and deeper for oil, through five miles of water, rock and shifting salt.

RICARDO CABRAL DE AZEVEDO: The pressure is becoming higher and higher. We just don't know if all this equipment that we have to put so, so deep - all this will work. We are doing things for the first time ever.


FORERO: After a long, fruitless day fishing, Alexandre Anderson turns his boat home. He's well aware of the oil industry's arguments.

ANDERSON: (Foreign Language Spoken).

FORERO: But he says that doubling or tripling production will mean doubling or tripling the chance of a big spill. Where his countrymen see promise, he sees impending disaster.

Juan Forero, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro.

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