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‘We face a big dilemma over shale’

Environment Secretary Omar Judis talks to the Herald earlier this month
By Fermín Koop
Herald Staff

Environment Secretary Omar Judis says the country needs specific legislation

As the country seeks out international investors to develop Vaca Muerta, one of the largest shale formations in the world that is mostly located in Neuquén, environmental and social organizations have raised questions about the potential impact of hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking.

In an interview with the Herald, Environment Secretary Omar Judis insists Vaca Muerta will be exploited safely but acknowledges the country must develop specific legislation to ensure that unconventional hydrocarbons are developed safely. The need for such a regulation is one of the items that President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner will be discussing with the governors of oil-producing provinces today as part of a broad effort to reform the country’s hydrocarbons law.

Judis also insists the country’s glaciers inventory is finished and will be presented soon, but says he does not know when the City’s Riachuelo will finally be cleaned and acknowledges that crop dusting with glyphosate continues to be carried out near schools and homes despite its connection to disease and death.

President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has often said that making sure people have well-paying jobs and a home is more important than taking care of the environment. As Environment secretary, how do you feel about that?

We don’t think the two issues are incompatible. We need to find a balance between people’s needs and the needs of the environment.

Considering this need to find a balance, is the government willing to suspend a project that creates a lot of jobs but is environmentally risky?

Well, let’s take a look at some examples. The country needs energy and we know there are unconventional hydrocarbon resources. There’s no such thing as good or bad oil and gas recovery —it’s either safe or unsafe. We face a big dilemma over shale. We have to promote a minimum standards law for unconventional hydrocarbons so we can be sure that provinces take care of the environment. If we don’t take action, economic objectives will prevail over the environment.

How will you take care of the environment if there’s no specific legislation on unconventional resources?

We will promote a bill that regulates shale. Provinces can then exceed those standards, but at least there will be a baseline.

And in the meantime?

We still have a general environmental law that establishes minimum standards.

In basic terms, does fracking pollute the environment?

If the rules are followed, there’s no risk beyond that of a conventional oil well.

But several weeks ago, a company in Texas was forced by a court to pay compensation to a family for health problems caused by nearby fracking activity.

Well, that would also happen here if there’s any proven environmental damage.

Does the increased social activism opposing fracking concern you?

It’s fine for organizations to protest because it forces us to pay more attention. It’s great that there are critics who can warn us about possible risks so we can then analyze them.

Two years have passed since the Glacier Law was approved and the basic inventory that was the backbone of the measure has yet to be presented. Why the delay?

We’ve finished the inventory and will present it when the Cabinet Chief considers it appropriate. It was overly ambitious to think we could do it in only 180 days as the law required.

A recent report by the General Auditor noted there have been lots of violations of the Forestry Law. Is the government doing enough to prevent illegal logging?

It’s a minimum standards law and each province established a strategy on how it would adhere to the legislation. The General Auditor’s report does have some errors, claiming minimum standards were not fulfilled in areas where they actually were. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t violations; we have to verify that.

Environmental organizations say that illegal logging continues despite the law that sought to regulate the sector as a whole...

Each province has authority over its resources. We receive complaints and pass them on to the provinces. Santiago del Estero, Misiones and Salta receive most of the complaints. If we manage to verify that they haven’t fulfilled the minimum standards, we would cut the funding they receive from the federal government to protect their forests.

Do you see mining as an environmentally risky activity?

Every human activity has an environmental impact. If we were to say we could carry out a mining project that has no environmental impact, we’d be lying. A project needs to have both social and economic benefits in order for us to consider it.

Can you set a date when the Riachuelo will finally be cleaned?

We are currently working on that. We cannot say that we will clean it in a year or two, that would be a lie. There’s not a single problem that affects the river — its current state is the result of years of industrial pollution.

Crop dusting with glyphosate continues to be carried out near schools and homes. What’s your office doing to stop that from happening?

It’s a big challenge for every province to establish areas where crop dusting can’t be carried out. It’s true that farmers spray with glyphosate near schools and homes. The Environment secretary sets the political standards but provinces have the territorial authority and some provinces carry out stricter controls than others.

@ferminkoop

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