Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Black Gold Of The Mastership

In the Jurassic period, i.e. up to 200 million years ago, the Mastership was an open sea. Nowadays, it is a mountainous region that extends from Castellón in Valencia to Teruel in Aragon. The Mastership is a literal translation for Maestrazgo, the region having taken its name from the order which once governed it - the Grand Master (Gran Maestre) of the Knights Templar.

During the period which followed the Jurassic, the Cretaceous, a formation in the Maestrazgo was buried up to a depth of almost four kilometres. At the bottom of the one-time open sea were tons and tons of organic waste. Pressure and heat that built up on the waste deposits from the burial caused the creation of what is called an "oil window". In 2002 oil found in the Amposta field off Vinaròs in Valencia (an oil field first discovered in 1970) was shown to be coming from the Ascla formation, the one that had been buried all that time ago. The Ascla, and its exact location is still being worked on, is the "mother rock" that opens the window to that oil, and as a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Santiago de Compostela has pointed out, the Maestrazgo, once upon a time, extended very much further than today's mountainous area: the waters around the Balearics form part of the Maestrazgo, the Ascla formation and all; oil and all.

This professor, José Ramón Bergueiro, is an expert on oil slicks. Because of his knowledge of sea contamination and pollution from oil, his is a voice that you would expect to be listened to. He is apparently awaiting a response from the national environment ministry to a contingency plan he has presented for the spilling of hydrocarbons in the Gulf of Valencia. He is someone who works to minimise risk, accepting that there is no such thing as zero risk. He is not someone who works to prevent oil exploration.

Professor Bergueiro is sure that there is oil in the waters off the Balearics. He believes that this oil would be profitable. He also believes that oil and tourism can co-exist. He is, therefore, something of a lone voice.

On the beach in Palma on Friday there was a performance by the association Balears diu no (Balearics says no) which involved the pouring of tar over one of the performers. The oil slick, of the type with which Professor Bergueiro is familiar, had arrived, if only symbolically. It was another performance designed to attract attention to the opposition to oil exploration, and this opposition, one has the impression, is all but total. Palma's mayor Mateo Isern was helping with the collection of signatures against the exploration. He is just one politician who is opposed. Another, Alcúdia's mayor Coloma Terrasa, has posted the "says no" legend to her Facebook page. Everyone's saying no, including President Bauzá.

Having what might be a dispassionate or even vaguely objective discussion about oil seems to be almost impossible. Minds are made up. Oil, just say no. Yet below the slick of all the naysaying that is floating on the political surface is an undercurrent of a different type of politics - ambition - or so it has been suggested. The revelation by the national minister for industry, energy and tourism, José Manuel Soria, that President Bauzá had said, in the course of what was a private telephone call, that he recognised that there was nothing the national government could do to stop the prospecting, has been interpreted as an attempt by Soria to undermine Bauzá. And why might he want to do this? Because there is a further suggestion that Bauzá has his eye on Soria's job. If you've wondered why Bauzá has been so high profile outside the Balearics recently, then here - possibly - is the answer.

For Bauzá, being able to oppose exploration (even if he knows that it can't be stopped), is a grand opportunity to demonstrate environmental credentials and to regain lost popularity in the Balearics, but if he is genuinely looking at Soria's job, then how could he reconcile this opposition with the exploration? As a minister responsible for industry and energy, Soria can't oppose it. If he were to, then he would almost certainly have to resign. The suggestion that Bauzá wants his job strikes one (strikes me at any rate) as being unlikely. 

But if there are certain games to be played by politicians rather than engaging in objective debate about the oil, games aren't being played by the ordinary people of the Balearics (and forget the celebrity, bandwagoning dissenters). Opposition in the Balearics is similar to that in the Canaries. The two sets of islands are being treated as though they were colonies for exploitation with no regard being paid to the lifeblood of tourism or to the environment. Understandable as this attitude is, the emotion of the opposition prevents dispassionate debate. Might it just be possible for oil, tourism and environment to all co-exist? No one in the Balearics seems inclined to even consider the possibility that they might.

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