Chile: President Sebastian Pinera's Green Leanings Unlikely to Bring Energy Overhaul
By Benjamin Witte-Lebhar
Well-known for his business prowess, Chilean President Sebastian Pinera also enjoys a reputation as something of an environmentalist. Yet for all his ecological good works and pro-environment rhetoric, analysts say that, when it comes to energy, Chile is not likely to see a "green revolution" anytime soon.
A successful entrepreneur and cutthroat investor whose personal fortune is estimated at US$2 billion, Pinera does not fit the profile of a typical tree hugger. But in recent years, specifically through his Fundacion Futuro, the conservative leader has funded a number of conservation projects. The best known is Parque Tantauco, a huge nature reserve on the southern island of Chiloe that Pinera opened to the public in 2005.
Pinera's ecophilanthropy, a trend pioneered in Chile by US garment mogul Douglas Tompkins, has earned him praise both at home and abroad. Last year Britain's The Sunday Times placed Pinera 46th on its Green Rich List, a ranking of the world's top 100 wealthy environmental investors. Pinera, the London paper explained, "has promised to make conservation of offshore blue whales and inland virgin forests a top priority. The not-for-profit Fundacion Futuro, where Pinera is president, is looking into water-preservation and renewable-energy projects."
Pinera took that green-energy message on the campaign trail in 2009, promising greater investment in projects using nonconventional renewable-energy sources (NCREs), like wind and solar. "These resources belong to us and represent a tremendous energy opportunity given advances in technology and high oil prices," his official energy program reads. The five-point plan also emphasizes energy conservation and efficiency and sets a specific target for renewables: 20% of Chile's total supply by 2020.
By contrast, former President Eduardo Frei (1994-2000), the runner-up in January's presidential election (see NotiSur, 2010-01-22), promised to push hard toward nuclear energy. Frei also has a reputation of favoring large-scale hydroelectric dams, putting him at odds with environmental groups, which vehemently oppose projects like the US$3.2 billion HidroAysen venture, slated for the Aysen region of Chilean Patagonia (see NotiSur, 2008-10-17).
"Pinera has a vocation for environmentalism, at least more than Frei had. It's all relative," said Raul Sohr, a Chilean author and energy analyst. "He showed an interest in Douglas Tompkins' experience, in his [privately created and donated] national park. With Parque Tantauco, Pinera tried to take many elements from Tompkins' Parque Pumalin and implement them in southern Chiloe. It makes one think he has an inclination, a sensitivity."
New energy minister backs old plan
A month after being sworn in, however, Pinera has yet to offer a clear indication of how that environmental inclination might translate into concrete policy--particularly where energy is concerned. So far, renewable energy has been notably absent from any government discourse, despite featuring so prominently in the president's campaign platform.
But the man who designed Pinera's energy policy, new Energy Minister Ricardo Rainieri, has commented on another high-profile electricity issue: the controversial HidroAysen project. Calling it "tremendously attractive," Rainieri said HidroAysen "represents an important hydroelectric resource that allows for highly reliable electricity generation....From that point of view, we're interested."
HidroAysen is a joint venture between Chile's leading electricity producer, Italian-controlled Endesa, and Colbun, a Chilean utility. The two companies are hoping to build five massive dams in the far southern Aysen region that together would add a huge 2,750 megawatts to Chile's grid. The country's total installed capacity is roughly 13,100 MW.
Since it was first unveiled four years ago, the project has drawn heavy criticism from both Chilean and international environmental groups, which fear the dams will ruin Aysen's two largest rivers, the Baker and Pascua, and open up the Patagonia wilderness region to further industrial exploitation. …