The tiny town of Urucu, deep in the middle of the Amazon rainforest, could easily be seen as some sort of eco-paradise. Although it's surrounded by lush rainforest and is accessible only by boat or plane, Urucu features all the green amenities one could hope for: public transportation, a recycling center, reforestation programs, and an official mission to "contribute to the sustainable development in the region." To top it all off, 100 percent of the town's 6,689 residents are employed -- but if you're picturing a commune full of hippies, you couldn't be more off-base. They work for Petrobras, Brazil's largest energy company, and they're pumping 55 thousand barrels of oil from the Amazon every day.
Most people get to Urucu by plane from the Amazonian capital of Manaus -- and it's a surreal experience. After about an hour and a half of flying over dense, untouched forest, the plane breaks through the clouds and lands at a single runway airport, a tiny concrete strip in a sea of green. The first thing you notice is just how extraordinarily well-kept the place is despite being in the middle of one of the wildest places on Earth.
An oil company with a $104.9 billion annual revenue, apparently, can afford to keep things nice.
On the day I arrived, along with a handful of other journalists, we were greeted warmly by our host from Petrobras as we exited the plane and were ushered onto what appeared to be a municipal city bus -- a small fleet of them were shipped here by boat to shuttle employees around town. Smiling young oil workers milled about in the front of the quaint little airport, all dressed in their standard bright orange jumpsuits, likely waiting for the plane to take them out of Urucu and back to civilization. Later, we were told that employees generally rotate shifts -- two weeks on duty in the fields, two weeks off back home in the city.
A small network of roads connects the operation facilities in Urucu; they seem freshly paved and surprising well-maintained, while the forest just off the street appears undisturbed. At one point, the driver stopped the bus momentarily and gestured to a tree. We watched as two or three small monkeys climbed between the branches just long enough for a few pictures to be snapped before darting out of sight. Our host grinned sweetly at the pleasure we took from seeing these animals, like they were some friendly neighbors he was quite fond of too.
After about a mile, we arrived at Urucu's main center, a collection of little buildings that's home to the town's restaurant, visitor's area, doctor's office, and dormitories for some Petrobras workers. With tidy landscaping and the occasional rainforest-themed adornments, the place was a bit reminiscent of a brand new elementary school. A buffet table was laid out for us and a smartly-dressed waiter brought us cold beverages. I was told to enjoy the food, and that soon we would be briefed on all the wonderful things this oil company was doing out in the middle of the world's largest rainforest.
As I chewed on a complimentary biscuit and watched my orange-clad hosts smiling and nodding, I affirmed to myself that that would be the only thing I'd swallow so easily.
Our briefing outlined the history of oil exploration in the region. Although oil was found in this part of the Amazon in 1917, the production facility in Urucu didn't start drilling until the late-80s. Now there are five active oil fields in the Amazon, producing some 200 million barrels of the stuff a year. In Urucu, natural gas is the is the primary product, with 10.7 million cubic meters being drawn from the ground each day. A recently completed pipeline from this remote outpost to Manaus will eventually be the main source of power for the Amazon's largest city. That, plus millions of dollars of royalties paid by Petrobras to the state, will undoubtedly transform the economic landscape of a region with otherwise limited financial opportunities.
But, we're told, oil production in Urucu has only the tiniest impact on the environmental landscape of the Amazon, and that sustainability is of the utmost importance for the company. The briefing ended and the bus arrived again to take to us a producing well nearby in order to demonstrate just how eco-friendly the oil giant really is.
A short drive later, we met with an oil well operator. He explained that the facility's wells have a minimal footprint because they draw oil from the ground not just vertically, but horizontally too, meaning more oil can be accessed from a single well and less forest needs to be cleared. Afterwards, he opened a valve on the well and poured some oil into a graduated cylinder to show just how "light" the crude in the region is.
I can't say that I've visited many producing oil wells in my day to compare Petrobras' to, but it was impressive how compact these wells can be; all told it occupied about the same area as a basketball court, and the jungle around it looked, for the most part, unaffected. When asked about the impact of this well on wildlife, the operator insisted there was none. He then regaled us with charming stories about animal encounters he's had on duty -- like the time he and a co-worker crossed paths with a jaguar, forcing the pair to scramble up a radio tower to avoid being mulled. When pressed for details, he offered to tell yet another story, insisting this next one "really happened."
Then it was on to the plant's processing center, where the substances pumped from the ground are filtered and refined. The chemical engineer on duty explained how natural gas is the facility's chief product, and that much of the oil that's comes through is then pumped back into the ground -- which I found to be quite interesting. Apparently, the demand for as much oil as Urucu can pump is just not there in Manaus and other smaller cities within the Amazon. Not there yet, that is.
Perhaps the most impressive operation in Urucu was its large nursery, designed to recover whatever vegetation might have been lost due to Petrobras operations there. Dozens of long tables were stacked with thousands of seedlings at various stages of maturity. The official in charge of the nursery described a thorough process whereby prior to any area being cleared, like for a new well or building, each plant species is carefully recorded before being cut down, so the same flora can be replaced in that spot if the project is abandoned. Even the nutrient rich topsoil is peeled off and stored so each replanted area can grow without being too disadvantaged. This method has been used to reforest around 850 acres in Urucu.
Over the course of a few more short jaunts around town, the Petrobras host showed us a school on site where illiterate employees can learn to read, a small hotel that seemed to be made partially of converted shipping containers, and a recycling center where the waste is processed and turned to compost. Needless to say, the company has put forth a lot of money and time to make their facility in Urucu, dare I say, environmentally responsible. It only makes sense they'd want to show it off.
Throughout my long afternoon in Urucu, I felt obliged to be skeptical of just about everything put before me -- Petrobras is an oil company, after all. Part of me expected to discover that something diabolical was afoot in all these great things they were doing, but I didn't. The school for illiterates, the nursury, and the recycling center weren't just plywood facades from a Hollywood movie set, and the employees cheerily sweeping the sidewalk didn't break character once I put my camera away. In the end, I believed the plant operators in Urucu were sincere in their commitment to not mucking up the Amazon in pursuit of a better quarterly statement.
The real trouble, I fear, is a bit less immediate than that -- and a bit more dire.
As it stands now, communities in the Amazon rainforest rely upon burning diesel fuel to meet their energy demands, which Petrobras hopes to replace with cleaner burning natural gas pumped from facilities like the one in Urucu. With this access to energy, however, and the opportunities afforded by having such a huge industry nearby, life in this region will undoubtedly be made much better for everyone. But with opportunity comes opportunity seekers -- which will be accommodated one way or another at some cost to the environment regardless of how nicely the fuel was pulled from the ground.
I put forth this concern with a Petrobras official in Urucu. He shrugged slightly and paused, as if considering the question for the first time. People don't want to come to the Amazon, he said, so it wouldn't lead to much greater development. "We have a saying here," he continued, "that the best ecologist is the malaria mosquito."
That such a small little insect is the last line of defense preventing the Amazon from being over-developed isn't very comforting. I thought for a while on how a dry, inhospitable desert in Nevada became awash in neon and concrete in less than 50 years.
Flying back to Manaus that evening, outside the window that incredibly vast forest below was darker than the night sky. But unlike the impression I had of the Amazon on the flight to Urucu, the forest didn't seem so untouchable now. As we flew, I imagined that well-intentioned pipeline weaving through the trees, tracing the hundreds of miles which passed for me so quickly without even the faintest trace of light.
No one can say for certain what this part of the world will look like in the coming decades, but I am sure glad I had a chance to see it just like that.
Note: I was recently invited by a strategic planning body of the Brazilian government to tour facilities and reserves in the Amazon rainforest, meet folks from community-led forest management projects, and interview government officials including Brazil's Environmental and Energy Ministers, Ambassador for Climate Change, and director of IBAMA. In the interests of full disclosure, it should be pointed out that Petrobras is a semi-public company of which the Brazilian government is majority shareholder.