The Chevron oil spill in Brazil

Ildo Luis Sauer, ex-director of Gas and Energy for Brazilian energy giant Petrobras, talks to Al Jazeera about Chevron and the oil spill in Brazil.

Ildo Luis Sauer spent five years as the Director of Gas and Energy for Brazilian energy giant Petrobras. He left the company in 2007, and now is the director of the postgraduate programme in energy at the University of Sao Paulo’s Institute of Energy.  Sauer travels the world giving lectures on energy policy, and remains one of Brazil’s top independent consultants on the matter.

With Chevron coming under increased scrutiny for the oil spill off the coast of Brazil more than two weeks ago, Sauer sat down with Al Jazeera to discuss the whole matter. 

[Click here to see a photo gallery from the spill]

 Photo: Ildo Luis Sauer

Question: How has Chevron responded to the oil spill in Brazil?

Ildo Luis Sauer: “Full information is not available, but based on what I have seen that is publicly available, Chevron has not reacted adequately. The government has said Chevron has even been involved in lies, which is completely unacceptable for a company that has such huge responsibility for providing services and contracts in the oil sector and huge pressure and consequences in terms of the environment.”

Question: What specifically has surprised you the most about Chevron’s response?                                                                                                                                    

Ildo Luis Sauer: “The idea that is coming out that Chevron was trying to hide information. Also, the information is that the company perhaps did not have the necessary skills and equipment available to them to properly intervene after the spill. All of that rings a bell in my head that something is not right.

Question: Why would Chevron want to withhold information, assuming that turns out to be the case?

Ildo Luis Sauer: “I can not say because I have not been directly involved. I have seen the secretary for environment for Rio de Janeiro saying that lies were involved by Chevron, and that there was hiding of information by Chevron. This is not acceptable.”

Question: Brazil has already fined Chevron about $27 million dollars and warned more fines are possible likely.  Brazil also has temporarily banned the company from drilling in the country until the final investigations are complete. Is that enough, or do you think there should be more action against the company?

Ildo Luis Sauer: “I would make a thorough investigation, not only into Chevron, but all oil exploration contracts need to be under review in Brazil. And then I would determine that the companies that do not behave adequately have to be out of the game. This is to guarantee the safety of industry, people, and the environment. This needs to happen all over the world, not only here in Brazil.”

Question: Any takeaways from this spill, or lessons learned, so far?

Ildo Luis Sauer: “Necessary and full measures have to be taken by all the governments around the world because up until now, the main regulatory body to control behavior of these big oil companies has been the insurance companies. Why? Because they grant the insurance required compliant with some international standards. But that is not sufficient in countries like Brazil that are now one of the most aggressive off shore oil explorers in the world. Production industries have to take preventative measures. And I believe the only way forward is to learn from previous incidents from other industries. Like from the nuclear industry that has faced several disasters chemical industries that have faced clear disasters like in Japan in the 50’s, and Bopal in the 80s in India. We need to adopt the ‘precautionary principle’ that requires that any company, before having a license to intervene in any critical structure in nature, has to prove, in advance, that the intervention does not bear unacceptable risk. And also that assessment of personnel has an independent review to grant to these projects. So I think a new culture and regulation that takes a global face has to come to place, otherwise the oil industry will face this again. And it looks like we did not learn enough from the last incident in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s not surprising the oil industry didn’t learn this lesson after the Gulf spill, as there are so few companies that are similar actors in this industry. Companies like Transocean who were in the Gulf of Mexico, and now here in Brazil. Chevron was there, in the Gulf of Mexico, and it is here.”

Question: Has Brazil done enough to be prepared to deal with major offshore spills?

Ildo Luis Sauer:  “Two answers here. First, Petrobras, until 2000, was plagued by four major oil spills. Then Petrobras, in order to preserve its public image and be an acceptable national company, invested huge amounts of money in safety , insurance, and technology. It was more than $2 billion dollars. So Petrobras as a company dealt with safety. But that is not enough for the Brazilian government. The Brazilian government must look beyond that now and needs to bring today new legislation and new regulatory framework in order to, as I propose, to adopt measures that are compatible with the so called precautionary principle. Because any intervention of risk, like off shore, ultra deep water exploration, need to demonstrate before they come on line that only acceptable risk is available. And more important than that that independent review of designs, certification of equipment and personnel, are in place before projects start. This is what the government needs to focus on.   

[Click here to watch an Al Jazeera report about a previous Petrobras oil spill and the effects a decade later]

Question: Is the precautionary principle being implemented now?

Ildo Luis Sauer: “No, it’s not available anywhere in oil industry. It’s only happening in the nuclear industry. Brazil, even after the Gulf of Mexico spill, I have seen the head of the national oil agency say, ‘No, Brazil has good legislation because we have huge fines.’  It’s not acceptable anymore talking about fines after it happens. The responsibility of the government, especially in Brazil, is to look ahead before the spill happens. I think Brazil is very late in what it has to do to be prepared for a spill.

Click here to read all of Chevron’s press releases about the oil spill.

Click here and here to see some of Al Jazeera’s reporting on the spill from the past week.

Follow Gabriel Elizondo on Twitter @elizondogabriel