Argentine Government Shuts Down (and Re-Opens) Shell Refinery: Green or just Politics?

It is so sad that whenever we hear about something that should be good green news in Argentina, we have to start wondering what is behind it. That happened with the government's strong opposition to the installment of pulp factories in the limit between Entre Rios province and Uruguay (arguing they will contaminate the Uruguay and Rio de la Plata rivers): why did the government care so much about this river when the Parana river has dozens of pulp factories contaminating the water? Paranoid as it might sound, some groups argued that the factories were going to be installed in Entre Rios but the provincial government asked for a 'settlement' much too big, and the factories crossed to the other coast. This questioning to 'green' acting by president Nestor Kirchner's government is happening now, when a few months before the presidential elections and in front of an open dispute between the government and Shell, the Environmental Secretary shuts down a refinery in Dock Sud, a suburb twenty minutes south from Buenos Aires city.The closure was framed under the Cleaning of Matanza-Riachuelo program, which proposes to finally conclude a promise that is going since the mid-nineties: to bring back to life the most contaminated river in the country. It is not that we do not like the idea; it is just that we have heard about this so many times, and never saw any results.

The official communication from the government says, "The Environment Secretary proceeded to the total closure of the Shell venue located at 2318 Sargento Ponce st. for preventive reasons. The operation was performed by the Environmental Control National Direction (DNCA), and is part of the Integral healing plan of the Matanza-Riachuelo basin". Supposed motives include:
1. That the company illegally extracts 18,400,000 liters of water from the Dock Sud canal and the Rio de la Plata river,
2. That its documentation and controls for devices under pressure are not in rule,
3. That there are corroborated spills that contaminate the soil,
4. That there is a poor management of hazardous waste,
5. That there are formal faults that include pouring [of substances] in the Rio de la Plata river, and
6. That there is lack of environmental impact studies.

We are not a bit surprised that all of this can be true and are happy that someone takes cards in the business, but pretty surely, Shell is not the only petrol company with faults. Besides, this happens when just a few days ago, the government confronted Shell by accusing the company for shortage of diesel in its stations; and just a few months after it accused the company for raising prices undercover, when they wanted to launch a bio-diesel (and then had no reservations when Repsol YPF launched Gasoil-Bio). Remember gas prices and many others have been controlled by the government in order to stop the inflation the country has gone through since the 2001 devaluation.

So it was no surprise that when the news came out, Clarin newspaper reminded that, "the closing coincides with a strong confrontation between the petrol company and the Commerce secretary, Guillermo Moreno, who legally reported Shell for shortage of diesel". In a tougher piece, Perfil newspaper claims, this is "another step in the government's attack against Shell", and repeats, "the petrol company is submerged in a judicial dispute with the Commerce secretary, who accuses the company for diesel shortage and even has asked prison for Shell's president, Juan Jose Aranguren". Terra's news service also states that the government "keeps an open confrontation since 2005" with Shell.

According to the government's release, other companies have been targeted by the Matanza-Riachuelo healing, but they surely were not as publicized and the only petrol giant is Petrobras, and they are only "being controlled". These, says the release, were:
-Petrorio Sea Tank, which "was preventively closed due to proved spills";
-Meranol S.A.C.I., which "had to adequate its operations with sulfur at open sky and build a proper deposit for the stock of such substance"; and
-Brazilian petrol giant Petrobras, "which is being controlled in order to find out about its general environmental situation".

We really do not want to be skeptical and you could argue that any measure against contamination, for whatever reason, is a good decision. But when it comes to politics, 'green' decisions like this lasts little in Argentina.

In fact, this one seems to have lasted a record: last Saturday it was announced that, "the Argentine government could allow Royal Dutch Shell's sole refinery in Latin America to reopen next week if it approves a clean-up plan the company is expected to present in the coming days", informs UK Reuters. "A government official told Reuters that it was likely the refinery, located in the outskirts of Buenos Aires, could start operating as early as Tuesday".

As mentioned, it is so sad that we always have to wonder what's behind 'green' decisions in Argentina. Links (all in Spanish) ::Original release ::Clarin newspaper article ::Perfil newspaper story ::Terra's coverage ::Reuters UK (English)