Colombia judge orders suspension of fracking pilot project

(Reuters) – A judge in the Colombian city of Barrancabermeja on Thursday suspended an environmental license granted to a hydraulic fracturing – or fracking – pilot project, on the grounds that local communities were not properly consulted.

Colombia’s majority state-owned oil company Ecopetrol (ECO.CN) and partner U.S. oil major Exxon Mobil Corp (XOM.N) were given the green light to develop the Kale project in Puerto Wilches, a town in Santander province, by the National Environmental Licensing Authority (ANLA) late last month.

But Afrowilches, a local Afro-Colombian group, said community members had not been sufficiently consulted in accordance with Colombian laws which require extractive companies to detail projects’ potential benefits and harms to nearby communities and ethnic minorities.

Judge Blanca Martinez backed Afrowilches’ claim, ruling the right to prior consultation must be protected. Martinez ordered the environmental license suspended.

Ecopetrol “has absolute respect for communities and we act within the legal framework,” the company said in a statement, adding it will challenge the ruling.

Exxon Mobil did not immediately respond to requests for comment. ANLA declined to comment on the ruling.

Commercial development of non-conventional energy deposits – such as fracking for shale gas – is not currently permitted in Colombia, but the country’s highest administrative court has allowed pilot projects to go ahead while it weighs the issue.

The ruling orders Ecopetrol and ANLA to provide Afrowilches with prior consultation for Kale and a second proposed fracking project called Platero.

Both pilots are located near Puerto Wilches. Platero is still awaiting an environmental license.

“Today is a historic day,” Afrowilches’ legal representative Pedro Carballido Fuentes said in a video message shared with journalists.

Colombia’s anti-fracking alliance also celebrated the decision in a statement.

“Today’s news is very symbolic and could spell the end of the pilot projects,” Carlos Santiago, of the Colombia Free from Fracking Alliance, said in a WhatsApp message.

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