Oil exploration in the Amazon: between progress and sustainability

Oil exploration project on the Equatorial Margin confronts Petrobras, which estimates US$ 2 billion in investments for activities in the region, and Ibama, which considers the proposal unfeasible concerning the environment

Eduardo Laviano

Translated by Silvia Benchimol and Ewerton Branco (UFPA/ET-Multi)


The Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Resources (Ibama) rejected, last Wednesday (17), the oil exploration license on the coast of Amapá, requested by Petrobras.

The debate over prospecting for oil exploration at the mouth of the Amazon River emerged after the president of Petrobras, Jean Paul Prates, repeatedly made statements supporting the project last month. 

So far, the state-owned company plans to drill a well about 160 km off the coast of Oiapoque, in the state of Amapá, a site that is located about 500 km away from the mouth of the Amazon River.

 The aim is to prove the economic viability of the project. The mouth of the Amazon River is part of the Equatorial Margin, an area considered as the new oil exploration border in Brazil. 

The region will be strategic for the national power matrix, according to the company. It extends from the coast of Amapá to the state of Rio Grande do Norte, spreading out along 2,200 kilometers. By 2026, Petrobras estimates to invest US$ 2 billion in exploratory activities throughout the region.

At the end of April 2023, however, professionals from the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (Ibama) recommended rejecting Petrobras' request to drill the well in search of oil. Based on the agency's technical report, the project is unfeasible concerning environmental aspects. 

The technical opinion on the licensing of the so-called block 59 is one of the documents that supported the decision by the president of Ibama, Rodrigo Agostinho, for not issuing an operating license to Petrobras.

According to the technical opinion, the prediction of the activity impacts on the three indigenous lands in the Oiapoque region is fragile. In addition, Ibama's technical staff pointed out doubts related to the plan presented by Petrobras for assisting the fauna in the event of an oil spill accident. Moreover, the document states that there is still technical and legal uncertainty, due to the lack of a broader analysis of the compatibility between the oil industry and the social environmental context of the region.

In an interview with the Liberal Group at the end of April, the president of Ibama said that the region covered by the Petrobras project for oil exploration is very sensitive and highly diverse. 

"The tidal system is different; there are not beaches, there are mangroves, besides, there are many traditional communities", he pointed out. According to him, in an official announcement last Wednesday (17), "there is no doubt that Petrobras was offered every opportunity to solve critical problems of its project, but it still presents worrying inconsistencies for safe operations in a new exploitation frontier of high socio-environmental vulnerability".

On the other hand, the president of Petrobras, Jean Paul Prates, has been increasingly emphatic in supporting the project, always emphasizing that it is an initial study. 

"The location of the first well we want to drill is not on the Amazon River, but on the high seas, 500 kilometers away from the mouth of that river. This is the equivalent distance between Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Drilling the first well will be a temporary action, expected to last just five months. In almost seven decades of history, we are proud of never having registered an oil spill or blowout event during offshore drilling activities. After the results of the investigation and drilling phase, the society will have the right to know what the real potential of this area is, just later a debate on whether or not to continue the project will be deepened", he said in an interview with the newspaper O Globo.

Oil can generate opportunities

In total, there are still 47 blocks on the Equatorial Margin in "permanent offer" by the National Petroleum Agency (ANP) and 157 under study to be auctioned. 

Petrobras has already sold six blocks to the companies Total (40%) and BP (30%) in 2013, in an auction held by the National Petroleum Agency. 

In the opinion of engineer Rafael Teixeira, executive director of the America Support Services company, Ibama's technical staff's opposition to the project is worrying. 

He believes that prospecting for oil in the region would only bring benefits to the population. In addition, Teixeira points out that the covid-19 pandemic has delayed global energy matrix transition plans, making active fossil fuels even more valuable for Brazil. Teixeira also states that after 100% verified, prospecting should only start five years from now, that is, in 2028.

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Rafael Teixeira believes that prospecting for oil in the region would only bring benefits to the population (Thiago Gomes/O Liberal)

"The green transition depends a lot on technology, which depends on microchips and minerals. The pandemic has delayed the supply of these raw materials. We already have soil, geological and ultrasound studies of the seabed. Due to the characteristics of the soil and the proximity to the basin of the Guyana, the chance of finding oil is 90%. But, it is necessary to start the studies in order to be 100% sure. There is an expectation that it will be three times larger than the Campos basin. I think the project will bring full development to the state, opening a new economic border that we have never experienced here. We have an example in Macaé, in Rio de Janeiro, with wealth and opportunities that improved people’s lives. During the entire history of Petrobras, there has never been an accident with oil rig. It is the most technological and qualified company that exists", he says.

Communities fear impacts on the coastal area and migratory “boom”

Formed by nine communities, the Management Committee of the Beira Amazonas Protocol is concerned about the progress of the debate. Aldemir Corrêa, from Amapá, rural extension technician and vice president of the Committee, evaluates that the discussion is still restricted to the government offices in Brasília, with little popular participation. 

"We are not against progress, but if it does not involve the region's traditional communities, who are the beneficiaries of this progress? There is no conversation about financial compensation for the environmental impacts on our way of life. They forget that we are riverine people, that many of us survive from fishing. We have a lot to contribute to public policies about oil exploration here", he says.

According to Corrêa, the challenge now is to create a cohesive social mass aware of the possible consequences of the project, which could impact five thousand families on the coast of Amapá. The area is 263 kilometers long and encompasses nine of the sixteen municipalities in the state. He believes that this is the only way to demand greater participation in the process from the authorities.

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Management Committee of the Beira Amazonas Protocol is formed by nine communities (Instituto Terroá)

For Luís Barbosa, from the Observatório do Marajó organization, the impact on the coastal area needs to be carefully analyzed, especially in the sedimentary areas between the river and the sea. He affirms that the Marajó island, in Pará, could also be impacted. 

"This plan has existed since 2014, between comings and goings. It is no wonder that the plan did not advance, due to environmental incompatibility. In the last government, there were some advances and, now, it is in the licensing phase. Petrobras aims to take this business ahead, and needs a license from Ibama for that. But transparency and participation of the population is needed. Petrobras held some meetings, but they were technical, not as an audience, or consulting. There was one meeting in Soure and another one in Belém. We need more public hearings for the project to move forward with transparency", he defends.

Barbosa points out that, in addition to riverside communities and extractive quilombolas, the municipality of Oiapoque is home to three indigenous communities. According to him, there are less visible impacts that need to be taken into account: large enterprises generally provoke a "boom" of migration to small municipalities, where there is insufficient infrastructure. Due to more movement of people, the rates of violence and other crimes tend to grow. 

"This problem occurs because job promises often do not come true or do not last long. We have seen social problems with large projects in other experiences, such as in Altamira after the construction of the Belo Monte Hydroelectric Power Plant".


For Flávia Guedes, a project assistant at the Mapinguari Institute, Petrobras' intentions have advanced more intensively in recent years. 

"It is necessary a careful and realistic analysis of the possible risks and damages. This action should be shared with society, providing access to information on environmental studies. We seek more participation, in a clear and multidisciplinary way", she says.

Risk of oil spill and air transport are sensitive issues

According to an Ibama report, available at Sumaúma website, oil exploration in the region requires some aspects to be considered. 

Regarding the impact on indigenous lands, where around 8,000 people live, the document mentions that in February this year, in a meeting with the Council of Chiefs of the Indigenous Peoples of Oiapoque and other entities, Petrobras recognized that helicopter flights between the city's airport and the drillship, that has been operating in the area called block 59 since last August were already affecting the native peoples, driving away the necessary fauna for surviving in the villages, making subsistence hunting difficult.

At the time, the state-owned company committed to change the altitude of these flights. However, according to the document, the estimated 3,000% increase in air traffic during the oil prospecting activity would require the preparation of a new Environmental Impact Assessment for the specific case of indigenous lands.

Ibama's technical opinion also rejects the Fauna Protection Plan presented by Petrobras as part of the Individual Emergency Plan. 

According to the text, all the alternatives proposed by the company for rescuing and transporting animals affected by a possible oil spill event takes a very long time for this rescue and do not take into account the possibility of abrupt changes in weather conditions in the area of block 59, which would affect the time and feasibility of navigation and flights.

The technical opinion points out that, due to the specificities of the Oiapoque coast, which do not allow the docking of large ships, the entire maritime support structure for Petrobras activities would be based in Belém, 830 kilometers from the oil well – a distance traveled in 43 hours, on average, by boats. Even if traveling by speedboats, the journey from the capital of Pará to block 59 would take at least 26 hours.