A court in Argentina has authorised oil exploration projects in three maritime areas off the Atlantic coast of Buenos Aires Province, while demanding that the "maximum level of control on operations" be applied.
In a ruling reported in the local press, the Federal Court of Appeals (second instance) in Mar del Plata authorised "the continuation of prospecting activities involving the project," removing an injunction put in place by a local judge.
The court imposed three conditions: that "permanent observers" be included to watch over the local population of southern right whales; that prospecting operations be carried out at a distance of more than 50 kilometres from a sector that includes an area known as the “Agujero Azul” ("Blue Hole"); and that the activities must be "immediately suspended" in the event of any serious damage to the environment.
"It is unquestionable that the National Parks Administration (APN) took the intervention that legally corresponded to it, that the director of the APN made a precise statement regarding the impact that the project would generate on the Southern Right Whale, that they positively assessed the mitigation measures in this regard, and that the new presentation by [Norwegian oil company] Equinor incorporated specific measures related to the reports collected in the APN," the judges said, lifting an injunction.
Environmental organisations have protested against exploration projects off the coastline's beaches, which attract millions of visitors every summer in the southern hemisphere. Campaigning organisation Greenpeace staged a march in Mar del Plata this week, with demonstrators gathering under the slogan ‘Mar Argentino sin petróleo’ ("Argentine Sea without oil").
"The Federal Court of Appeals gave in to pressure from the government and companies and authorised offshore seismic exploration in the Argentine Sea. But we will not allow oil companies to destroy our sea," the NGO denounced in a post on Twitter.
At the end of 2021, President Alberto Fernández's government gave permission by decree to Norwegian oil company Equinor, together with state-owned YPF and Anglo-Dutch Shell, to carry out seismic exploration studies in offshore areas of Mar Argentino.
Last February, following large protests from environmental organisations, a judge upheld a petition by Guillermo Montenegro, the PRO mayor of the tourist city of Mar del Plata, the famous seaside resort that attracts millions of visitors every summer.
Federal Judge Santiago Martín decided to hear the mayor's petition and ordered "the immediate suspension of the approval of the project" based on "the possibility of irreparable damage derived from the execution of the exploration work." He issued an injunction to halt exploration and ordered environmental impact studies to be carried out in the area.
Argentina holds extensive shale oil and gas deposits – including the world's second-largest shale gas formation, Vaca Muerta – which the government hopes could be a driver of economic growth.
The government says the project was granted approval after a public consultation hearing, though Greenpeace says that “98 percent of participants” objected to the project.
The oil companies with stakes in the three blocks in question have said they will comply with the conditions imposed by the Argentine government and the "highest international standards" in terms of safety and socio-environmental issues.