Mar del Plata, Argentina – Roberto Garcia stands on the rocks hugging the port of Mar del Plata and casts his fishing rod into the heaving waters below. It has been two weeks since he has made it to the ocean, and that is two weeks too long for the lifetime resident of Argentina’s iconic coastal city.
“The ocean is like a cable to earth,” he says, adopting a phrase commonly used in Argentina to describe the pursuit of balance. “It’s peace. Imagine if it was stained by oil?”
Garcia, a 56-year-old construction worker, voices a fear that has drawn thousands of people onto the streets of Argentinian cities this year to protest the expansion of offshore drilling.
On December 30, the Argentinian government authorised seismic testing to begin about 300 kilometres (186 miles) from the coast of Mar del Plata. The study will map oil and gas deposits under three parcels of the ocean floor by using a sound cannon to bombard the ecosystem with high decibel frequencies that pinpoint where to drill.
The project has represented a fork in the road for the South American nation awash in natural resources, and could lead to a new wave of drilling in Argentina – the first in deep waters. Proponents believed this would transform the country into an energy exporter, but opponents warn of unacceptable ecological risks.
With wildfires raging in the northern province of Corrientes this year and massive demonstrations against mining in the southern province of Chubut last year, concerns about environmental degradation have reached new heights. Hundreds of artists, scientists, journalists, citizen groups and intellectuals have signed a letter opposing offshore expansion, and disputing the government narrative about economic rewards and energy sovereignty.
Beyond the possibility of oil spills, protesters have expressed serious concerns about the damage that seismic testing could do to whales, dolphins, penguins and other marine life.
“There is no way to guarantee that this activity won’t have an irreversible impact on the biodiversity, and as a result, the health and wellness of the community,” Argentina’s Whale Conservation Institute has noted.
Capitalising on oil and gas
The national government has made its intentions clear on the oil and gas industry, and the consensus cuts across party lines. In 2019, the right-wing administration of Mauricio Macri tendered 18 permits for oil and gas exploration in the ocean, and today, the left-wing administration of Alberto Fernandez is seeing the project through.
At the opening of the new session of Congress this week, Fernandez celebrated the recent oil and mining rebound, citing the critical role of these industries in alleviating Argentina’s economic woes. The government and industry groups have insisted the country has the necessary safeguards in place, maintaining that offshore drilling can reduce Argentina’s reliance on energy imports.
“We must develop all the energy sources of Argentina,” Dario Martinez, the country’s energy secretary, said in January. “We need more gas and more oil to stop importing, and we also have to bet on renewable energies, nuclear and hydroelectric.”
The 18 permits went to 13 of the biggest names in the business, including ExxonMobil, Total, Shell and BP, with investments reportedly exceeding $700m. “There is an expectation that this will have potential; otherwise, they wouldn’t come here to invest that kind of money,” Ernesto Lopez Anadon, president of the Argentine Oil and Gas Institute lobby group, told Al Jazeera.
Argentina’s environment ministry, which approved the seismic exploration, declined Al Jazeera’s request for an interview, and the energy secretariat did not respond to a request for comment. Equinor, the Norwegian company that will conduct the first seismic tests in partnership with YPF and Shell, did not respond to a request for comment.
The government has faced opposition from several quarters, including activists who have taken the matter to court. Last month, a judge paused seismic exploration and ordered a comprehensive environmental impact assessment. While a study by Equinor determined that the effects on marine life would be “low”, the judge noted that the effects of the sound radiated by a seismic campaign could be “significant”.
“For example, in the case of marine mammals, it is likely to cause temporary and permanent hearing damage, displacement, altered behaviour (feeding, reproduction, rest, migration), among others,” the judgement noted. “For fish and invertebrates, the damage can be physical and/or physiological, and can lead to hearing impairment that reduces their ability to survive, behavioural changes, and even death.”
But days later, another judge granted the national government leave to appeal, once again activating the permission for exploration to begin, although testing is not expected to start before this coming November.
‘Very difficult battle’
In a park near the centre of Mar del Plata, activists gathered on a recent morning to discuss how to continue waging their fight through social media campaigns, monthly demonstrations and outreach to labour sectors that would be affected, including tourism and fisheries.
“This is a long and very difficult battle because obviously, we’re confronting interests that are very powerful. The petroleum industry has a lot of power,” said Fernanda Genova, an organiser with the Assembly for an Ocean free of Oil Companies, one of the main activist groups organising against exploration and extraction.
“The state is trying to hide the impacts, to misinform the public,” Genova told Al Jazeera. “They want to generate resources to help get through the economic crisis that we are living through, but that can’t be at the expense of the ocean. We are a coastal community, and as such, we identify strongly with the ocean.”
Over at City Hall, there were also concerns. “I believe fervently in the production of work and industry that is safe, not that it be at any cost,” Guillermo Montenegro, mayor of the municipality of General Pueyrredon, which governs Mar del Plata, told Al Jazeera. He was among several parties seeking a court-ordered halt to exploration, arguing that not enough had been done to consult the residents of the city.
“This isn’t about the environment versus petroleum. It has to do with a real necessity to have absolute certainty that this type of study is not going to cause problems for future generations of my city,” Montenegro said.
Anadon contended that such fears are misplaced, noting that Argentina already has experience with offshore drilling in its southern sea, which delivers natural gas that powers the country.
“There has never been a problem; rather, there have been benefits for the country and the region,” he said. “These companies are international and they have offshore operations around the world. And they know exactly how to behave and what impacts it might have, and how to address those impacts.”
But activists have pointed to massive oil spills and disasters; the latest in January in Peru covered 41km (25 miles) of coastline with slick petroleum.
In the port of Mar del Plata, visitors and locals press up against a fence that overlooks a colony of sea lions, which are emblematic of the city. They roll around in the sun, groaning and roaring at one another as onlookers giggle. Further down the boardwalk, along a giant rock face that confronts the sea, Gustavo Liniers laments a recent news story about the oil disaster in Peru.
“It’s crazy. These things are not accidents. They are the result of negligence,” Liniers, a lifelong Mar del Plata resident who plans to join anti-offshore marches, tells Al Jazeera. “And we have to realise that at some point, big or small, there is going to be an oil spill.
“But I also am under no illusions, and if someone has determined that there is money to be made, then it’s going to be approved.”