May. 17, 2002

Controversial drilling stops

Miami Herald

BOGOTA - Occidental Petroleum Corp. will stop drilling beside the Colombian Indian reserve where an indigenous tribe once threatened mass suicide to halt oil exploration. The company didn't strike oil.

The decision, long awaited by environmentalists, was made after the California-based oil giant plunked down $66 million.

''There may be oil there, but not enough to be commercial,'' said company spokesman Larry Meriage. ``We found no black oil in the well.''

The Occidental project has been controversial from the start. It sits a smile from the U'wa Indian tribe reservation, 215 miles northeast of Bogotá. A highly spiritual group, the U'wa believe oil is the sacred blood of Mother Earth. In 1999, the 8,000-member tribe threatened to follow oral legend and leap off a 1,400-foot Andean cliff if Occidental did not back off.

Occidental didn't, but the tribe didn't jump.

Working under contract with the Colombian government, Occidental began drilling in February 2001. Exploration stopped six months later when the company only came up with natural gases, and the company's geologists said there was little point in going forward. The company formally decided last week to cease the project and return the drilling license to Ecopetrol, the state oil company.

The U'wa believe there is oil in the half-million-acre Siriri region, but that their prayers to Mother Earth kept Occidental from finding it.

''Their stabbing was felt some 12,500 feet below the earth's surface and she cried,'' the tribe said in a statement. ``She asked us to defend her and to tell the world what she was feeling. We did that, and we will continue to do that.''

The victory may be short-lived. Convinced there is oil near the ancestral lands, Ecopetrol has vowed to continue the drilling either on its own or with another company.

''We expect to begin within a few months,'' a company official said.

Studies have shown there is about a 15 percent chance of finding oil there, the government said.

 Environmentalists say Occidental likely abandoned the project because of intense objections combined with increased hostilities from guerrillas who operate in the region.

''When Occidental says their operations were not economically viable, they have to factor two things: The adamant opposition became a lightning rod was a public relations black eye,'' said Amazon Watch's Kevin Koenig.

`And obviously the security situation is huge.''

While oil pipelines are frequent rebel targets, activists did not escape Colombia's conflict either. Three Americans working with the U'wa to stop the project were kidnapped in 1999 by Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia rebels, who believed they were CIA agents. Their bullet-ridden bodies were found weeks later in nearby Venezuela.

The U.S. government recently issued criminal indictments against the rebel commanders believed responsible for the murders.

Occidental also operates Colombia's second-biggest oil pipeline, the Caño Limón. The Bush administration has offered $98 million to the Colombian government to help protect the line, which was bombed by rebels nearly every other day last year.

''Any new oil operation would bring the 40-year conflict to your doorstep,'' Koenig said. ``They probably discovered that is not financially viable.''