Is Colombia on the brink of an energy crisis?

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Low water levels near the Guatape hydroelectric plan
Low water levels near the Guatape hydroelectric plan

One roadblock outside the Cundinamarca town of Ubalá has been slowly shutting down the turbines of Colombia’s largest hydroelectric generating plant. A blockade by the residents of this community 130 km East of Bogotá over the bad state of their main road enters a second week of protest without resolution between the municipality and national government.

The blockade has impeded preventive maintenance work on the turbines at El Guavio reservoir and operated by the utility company Enel. El Guavio’s four turbines generate 1,260 MW of electricity, equivalent to 6% of the country’s total capacity. On Tuesday, Enel announced that the plant is now operating at only 20% of its generating capacity, after three of the turbines were taken out of service since the start of the blockade.

“Even though we respect the right of social protest by the community, this action cannot put at risk an essential public service of Colombians,” stated Enel’s Eugenio Calderón. Should the road blockade not be lifted by September 27, the Central Hidroeléctrica El Guavio will go off the grid affecting more than 2 million households in the departments of Cundinamarca, Meta and Guaviare. A total shutdown of El Guavio could also affect electricity distribution in Bogotá, resulting in rolling blackouts.

Real concerns that a total outage at El Guavio could impact Bogotá’s eight million residents were raised Tuesday by lawmakers debating Colombia’s energy security given the Petro government’s plans to abruptly halt new oil and gas exploration contracts. The debate was marred when Irene Vélez, Minister of Mines and Energy, confused the word “hydrocarbons” with “carbohydrates” during a press briefing, and justified by the head of the portfolio “as part of her learning process.” President Petro quickly deflected criticism of Vélez’s innocuous mistake, stating on social media: “I have the impression that the protagonists do not want a minister independent of their interests: those who today profit from the users of the electricity sector.”

In what now appears to be a political lifetime ago, just months before leaving office, President Iván Duque hoisted the Colombian tricolor flag over the country’s largest wind farm in la Guajira, proof that his administration was advancing toward expansion of alternative renewable energies. President Petro also wants wind and solar power to be the insignia of his new government’s energy policy, yet since taking office on August 7, the country’s first leftist president has met sharp criticism for pitching an environmental agenda against the independence of the nation’s energy sector. This has also been compounded by the state-run oil company Ecopetrol’s decision to suspend work at two experimental fracking sites in accordance with President Petro’s objective to ban all fracking on Colombian soil.

The 90-day suspension at Ecopetrol’s two experimental sites at Kalé and Platero in the Middle Magdalena River valley is grounded in the company’s decision to await a final verdict from congressional lawmakers on the future of fracking. The right-wing government of President Iván Duque had approved four companies to participate in the pilot fracking projects: Ecopetrol, ExxonMobil, Drumond Energy, and Tecpetrol Colombia.

As of January 2022, Colombia had 1.8 billion barrels of crude oil reserves, equivalent to less than a decade’s worth in demand. Despite the country’s track record of having less oil reserves than its neighbors, the country currently pumps an average of 740,000 barrels per day, representing 2.7% of the GDP and 17% of government revenue. Petro has affirmed that tourism could replace Colombia’s reliance on crude oil exports, primarily destined to the United States. Colombia received in 2021 some 2.6 million tourists despite COVID-19 and international travel restrictions caused by the pandemic. A total reliance on tourism to substitute Colombia’s oil and gas dependency, would mean and additional 11 million tourists per year, each leaving at least US$1,400 in the country.

Objective that given the country’s security situation and lack of adequate infrastructure to accommodate 13 million visitors a year – more than 25% of the total resident population – would also require even more domestic oil and gas consumption, deepening Colombia’s almost-inevitable energy crisis.