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Ecuador rushes to relocate pipelines and protect power plant from raging river

By on July 1, 2021 0

  • Scientists warn Coca River erosion threatens pipelines
  • Petroecuador studies a possible new route for the SOTE pipeline
  • Electricity company prepares back-up plants due to dam risk

SAN LUIS, Ecuador, July 1 (Reuters) – Two dozen workers using six excavators cleared a swath of dense forest in the foothills of the Reventador volcano in Ecuador on a cloudy June morning, rushing to chart a new route for an oil pipeline hoping for a repeat of the nation’s worst oil spill in decades.

Ecuador’s power supply is also threatened. Not far from the site, the electricity company Celec is investing $ 100 million in works to prevent the river from reaching a reservoir for the Coca Codo Sinclair hydroelectric plant, which generates a third of the country’s electricity.

The SOTE pipeline, which carries around two-thirds of the output from oil fields deep in the Ecuadorian Amazon, is under constant threat from violent erosion of the Coca River after the collapse of the 130-meter San Rafael waterfall (426 feet) in February. 2, 2020.

The oil spill occurred last April after a landslide caused by the winding advance of the river opened the SOTE, the OCP parallel pipe and a smaller conduit carrying refined products. Ecuador declared the force majeure on rough exports, and indigenous communities found it more difficult to fish and farm. Roads and bridges near the river collapsed and a dozen people were evacuated from their homes. Some of those who remain in the sparsely populated area nervously watch the advancing river.

Another environmental disaster would also complicate efforts by new President Guillermo Lasso to revive the country’s dying economy. It has pledged to double crude production from current levels of around 500,000 barrels per day (bpd), which Ecuador’s central banks say accounted for more than 8% of gross domestic product in 2020. Oil accounted for two-fifths of the Andean nation’s exports in the first quarter of 2021.

State oil company Petroecuador and OCP Ecuador have made efforts to build bypass routes ever further away from the invading torrent. The one under construction is Petroecuador’s seventh in the past year.

Yet erosion continued. Reuters witnesses at the construction site heard the roar of rocks and trees falling into the river as workers prepared to lay new pipes to bring crude oil to ports on the Pacific coast.

Companies say construction bypasses will be a permanent solution, but some experts are less certain. Five geologists and geologists interviewed by Reuters warned that erosion could continue for years on an unpredictable path.

“Given what is happening in the upper part of the Coca River, there is a threat that this infrastructure will be affected again,” said Emilio Cobo, Quito-based environmental engineer and program manager of the Consortium for Development. sustainable development of the Andes. Ecoregion, a non-profit association aimed at reducing poverty and protecting the environment.

Celec is investigating possible new sites for its reservoir now that erosion is occurring within 5.6 miles (9 km). In addition, the state-owned power company is preparing to activate idle thermoelectric power plants in the event of an emergency at the dam, said Roque Proano, director of the executive committee of Celec Coca River.


Scientists said the phenomenon of “head erosion” accelerated after the waterfall collapsed, with the river compensating for the loss of the breaking point by eroding material at its base and banks further upstream, causing landslides.

This led to disaster two months later, when pipeline ruptures spilled nearly 16,000 barrels of oil into the river. SOTE and OCP stopped pumping crude oil for three weeks.

Since then, Petroecuador has spent $ 11.2 million on six bypasses, diverting nearly 5 km of the pipeline. OCP Ecuador has constructed two permanent bypasses and plans to install two more, in addition to several smaller temporary structures, at a cost of more than $ 30 million.

While the two pipelines are again transporting around 500,000 barrels per day (bpd) of crude – almost all of the country’s production – the by-passes constructed so far have not been enough.

The 2.4 km seventh ring road will redirect crude up and further away from the sixth ring road, now threatened by erosion. Jorge Loor, director of transport at Petroecuador, told Reuters that the line – due to be completed in August – was a “final solution”.

“As we go up the mountain, we move a quarter of a mile away from the erosion, and probably for quite a while, we won’t lose sleep over this problem,” Loor said.

But he said Petroecuador will continue to monitor erosion and undertake feasibility studies to determine the possibility of completely relocating the pipeline to the right side of the river.

“It’s so unpredictable that we can’t say that nothing will happen from now on, or that at some point we’re totally safe,” Loor said.

Roberto Grijalva, OCP’s director of operations, said geophysical studies showed the permanent bypasses were built on “competent rock” that would resist erosion.

“We are sure that we will not have any more problems there in the future,” said Grijalva.

Alfredo Carrasco, a geological engineer and former undersecretary in Ecuador’s environment ministry, said that although harder rocks in some areas could mitigate the impact, erosion would still be a risk.

“The fact that they are already building a seventh bypass in the case of Petroecuador speaks volumes,” he said.

In the nearby riverside settlement of San Luis, a cliff separating the homes of 40 families from the river has gradually receded, according to residents and satellite images provided to Reuters by Planet Labs.

Joaquin Salcedo said he halted a project to expand a restaurant he owns because land is now eroding just 120 meters from his property, once 500 meters from the river. He said the government had offered to move residents to a shelter, but many are resisting in hopes of compensation payments.

“We are at the mercy of nature,” said Salcedo. “We believe this will continue and that San Luis will disappear at some point.”

Reporting by Alexandra Valencia and Luc Cohen; Editing by Daniel Flynn and David Gregorio

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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