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A Major Victory in Patagonia: Chilean Government Rejects HidroAysén's Dam Project

Amanda Maxwell

Posted June 10, 2014

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Chile’s government – under the leadership of President Bachelet – made a landmark decision today when it rejected the controversial HidroAysén dam project. "The HydroAysen hydroelectric project is rejected," declared the Minister of the Environment upon announcing the decision this morning. This is a major victory for the majority of Chileans and the tens of thousands of people around the world who oppose building large, unsustainable dams in wild Patagonia – and for those who think that Chile can be a global clean energy leader by developing its remarkable potential for renewables* and energy efficiency.

Background: 2008-2014

HidroAysén first proposed to build its five large dams on the breathtaking Baker and Pascua Rivers in Patagonia in 2008. At that time, most people assumed the dams were a foregone conclusion. “It’s dams or coal,” people would say with a shrug, repeating the assumption that those were the only two reliable energy sources for Chile. Despite that, a remarkable group of people got together to form the Patagonia Defense Council, (or CDP, of which I am proud to say NRDC is a member) to fight HidroAysén. The CDP’s work has led the way for an ever-increasing number of people to join the cause –officially or not—and call for a “Patagonia sin Represas / Patagonia without Dams.”

Over the years, the HidroAysén controversy got more and more attention in Chile and internationally, especially after the dams received their environmental approval in 2011. As other energy options, such as renewable energy and energy efficiency, became recognized and cost-competitive, even more people joined the cause. Even HidroAysén’s two owners (the Chilean energy company Colbún and Endesa Chile, the Chilean subsidiary of the Italian energy giant Enel) displayed decreasing confidence in their project.

Something remarkable happened: the conversation changed from “It’s dams or coal,” to “What kind of energy future does Chile want?” and the HidroAysén debate grew into the largest environmental battle in Chile’s history.

Today’s Decision: What Does It Mean?

The long-awaited and highly-anticipated decision today came from Chile’s Committee of Ministers, which is comprised of rotating cabinet-level ministers working under the guidance of the Minister of Environment. After the environmental authority approved HidroAysén’s dams in May 2011, concerned citizens and groups filed judicial and administrative appeals against the permits. In early 2012, Chile’s Supreme Court—the highest judicial authority—ruled 3-2 in favor of HidroAysén. Today, Chile’s highest administrative authority—the Committee of Ministers—ruled against HidroAysén in a unanimous decision.

This ruling has important implications. It signals that the Bachelet administration is not going to follow the unregulated and unrestrained development of large conventional energy plants – a system which has repeatedly pushed Chile to the brink of energy crises in the past. Instead, it shows that this administration is going to be actively involved in the planning and regulation of the energy sector; that it is going to include strategic planning and zoning, public participation, transparency and sustainability criteria in its priorities. All of these things are emphasized in the new national Energy Agenda.

It also highlights the very real potential for better energy alternatives in Chile: renewables and energy efficiency. The latest report from the Center for Renewable Energy shows that there are over 11,000 MW of renewable energy projects approved and awaiting construction in Chile, and over 5,500 MW awaiting approval. Combined, that is the equivalent of six HidroAysén’s. Of course, not all of those projects are going to be built, but the point remains: HidroAysén is not necessary.

In addition, the 2010 study that formed the basis of Chile’s National Energy Efficiency Action Plan 2010-2020 found that energy efficiency programs could save enough energy during those ten years to equal more than 13 HidroAysén’s. Again, not all of the EE programs in that study will be pursued, but you get the idea… HidroAysén is not necessary.

To Sum Up…

The Chilean government’s decision today was a milestone in Chile’s energy development. It was also a milestone in the development of the role that local communities and citizens play in determining where projects can be built, and where they can’t. Of course Chile’s government has a lot of work to do to in the coming years to put the country on the path towards a sustainable, transparent, stable and secure grid. But for now, it’s time to celebrate. Patagonia sin Represas!

You can thank President Bachelet for protecting Patagonia at this link.

*In Chile, the term “non-conventional renewable energy” is used to exclude large hydro from the category. Here I will use “renewable” to imply the same thing for the sake of brevity, and “conventional” to include large hydro and fossil fuels.

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Comments

Jonathan KaufeltJun 10 2014 12:43 PM

Big win! Congrats!

Chile has an incredible coastline. It should "own" wave and tidal R & D. Maybe a blog on that subject at some point?

Amy CongerJun 10 2014 03:01 PM

How incredibly, awesomely wonderful! Miracles are possible (coming from an atheist.)! What do they say about a small group of determined people....

Brian ShelleyJun 10 2014 04:48 PM

Fantastic news. We need clean, renewable energy, and dams are, unfortunately, part of the mix. But, we do have options which rivers to dam, and in this case, the correct decision was made. These rivers have more value as whitewater destinations than for generation of electricity. Great news!

David MillerJun 10 2014 06:09 PM

Please thank Jacob Scheer for his efforts in getting this temporary result and for his success in getting Doug and Kris Tompkins and Patagonia behind the work. This isn't over but to have a country recognize the irreplaceable beauty of its natural resources enough to say no to unnecessary development is remarkable. And it will remain for the young of Chile to continue to maintain their new status quo.
Let the world know this is possible.

Precious GeminiJun 11 2014 12:35 AM

Hi!
It's the biggest victory for the nature!
God has given us great many blessing among them nature is the most valuable thing.
Then why we are destroying it by making dam?
I really appreciate the decsicion of Chilean Government!
😃

Masamu AniyaJun 11 2014 01:05 AM

I have been visiting Patagonia since 1983 and this is the greatest news to hear about Patagonia. I have been telling people in CYQ that if you lose nature (beauty of Patagonia) once, you can never restore or regain it. I have to celebrate with people in Chile, in particular in Patagonia.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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