Sunday, February 02, 2014

Oil Politics: Balearics and Canaries

"It's all about the price of oil," lamented Billy Bragg. The oil men in the White House didn't give a damn, but one in particular gave enough of a damn to give the appearance of a justified, non-oil-driven adventure by bringing along whichever ally, irrelevant or not, he could. José María Aznar was such an ally. If he was then mocked for being "Tony's little friend", he must have been Bush's very tiny friend. All about the price of oil.

In 2002, a royal decree of the government of José María Aznar was finally approved and published in the Official Bulletin. It paved the way for oil prospecting off the coasts of Fuerteventura and Lanzarote in the Canary Islands. It was a decree with the backing of Aznar, the then vice-premier, Mariano Rajoy, and the environment minister at the time, the now disgraced ex-president of the Balearics, Jaume Matas. 

For various reasons, this prospecting didn't happen. One was that the Spanish Supreme Court blocked Repsol's attempts to start exploration in 2004. This was after the government had changed and Aznar was no longer prime minister. But while the arguments over the exploration centred on the environmental impact, in the background were international political issues.

Following 9/11, the American Government moved to strengthen its relations with Morocco, and a free trade treaty was signed between the two countries. Morocco became the first African country to have such a treaty. This, however, was problematic for Spain. And the reason why was oil. Or the possibility of oil and to which country it might actually belong.

If you look at a map you will see that the Canaries lie off the coast of Morocco. Only a comparatively short distance to the south is the disputed territory of Western Sahara. Morocco claims sovereignty over Western Sahara, a territory which, under US-led pressure at the United Nations, Spain was forced to give up in 1975; the UN doesn't recognise Morocco's sovereignty claims. Exploration for oil off Western Sahara started, at the behest of the Moroccan Government, in 2002. It has since come to a halt, partly because of the lack of clarity over legal status. But the point is that oil fields which may or not exist off the Canaries could extend into territorial waters that are not Spanish and are either Moroccan or Western Saharan.

The trade agreement and cosier relationship between the US and Morocco were problematic for Spain because it needed (or would need) US support in any dispute over rights to oil. Was it all about the price of oil? Well, there are those who would argue that the only reason Aznar and Spain sided so strongly with Bush against Saddam wasn't so much to do with oil in Iraq but to do with oil in the Atlantic.

The international politics may have shifted since then, but the arguments are still the same, and they have been boiling up in the Canaries. An oil platform belonging to Cairn Energy sits in readiness for drilling work on behalf of Repsol to start this year. Aznar is no longer prime minister, but his one-time second-in-command is, and the Partido Popular administration has given the go-ahead to prospect for what could amount to 38 million barrels of oil a year.

Opposition in the Canaries has come from hoteliers and others in the tourism industry, from environmentalists and from local politicians in the regional government and at island councils. It is only really the Canaries business confederation that supports the national government in undertaking a venture which, for some in the Canaries, amounts to the islands being treated "like a colony" and being exploited against their wishes.

There is a much more tangled web surrounding the exploration off the Canaries than that to do with a subterranean sea mountain which runs from a location some 70 kilometres from the mainland at Cabo de la Nao to 45 kilometres off Ibiza. It is this mountain that has been designated for oil exploration. At one end is rare seaweed; at the other, in the waters near Ibiza, is posidonia sea grass, which is not unique to the Balearics but is otherwise also rare. The opposition to the exploration is as unified in the Balearics as it is in the Canaries, but it has a notable difference; the political leadership in the Canaries is not Partido Popular.

So, one has a situation in which the regional PP in the Balearics opposes the national PP. President Bauzá is against the exploration because of the potential harm that could be caused to tourism. Whether the opposition, in more general economic terms, is right is another matter. At least in the Balearics, though, there are no international politics to be concerned with other than those of a European Commission nature. And the EC, for one, needs convincing as to environmental safeguards. 

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