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No Oil Producer Wants to Be the First to Give Up the Fuel. Except Gustavo Petro’s Colombia

6 minute read

Brazil’s former president was laughing at me. I was sitting opposite 76-year-old Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, in an overly air-conditioned studio in São Paulo this March, interviewing him for a story on Brazil’s October elections, for which he is leading the polls. I had just asked Lula if he would be interested in signing up to a bold climate pledge made by Gustavo Petro—then the leftist front runner in Colombia’s 2022 presidential race and, as of this week, the nation’s president-elect. As part of his campaign, Petro vowed to immediately stop issuing new permits for oil exploration—a big deal in a country where oil makes up 40% of exports, and 12% of government income. Petro also called on Lula, who could become his most important regional ally, to join him. So, would he?

“Look, Petro has the right to propose whatever he wants,” Lula said, smiling and shaking his head as if we were discussing an eccentric old friend. “But, in the case of Brazil, this is not for real. In the case of the world, it’s not for real.”

For Colombia, it just got a lot realer. Petro, a one-time leftist guerrilla, won 50.47% of the vote in Sunday’s second round vote, narrowly defeating a populist businessman who took 47.27%. After he assumes office on Aug. 7, the president-elect will stop issuing new oil permits on day one. He will then try to establish a 12 year deadline for already-approved exploration to wind down, which would likely require legislative approval. Petro’s advisors say oil produced under those existing contracts is enough to satisfy domestic consumption—if exports are cut—for “at minimum” 23 years if needed. Long before the oil runs out, the government says it will scale up renewable energy infrastructure enough to replace fossil fuels.

How radical is Petro’s plan on oil exploration?

For critics, Petro’s oil policy amounts to “economic suicide.” Many warn his plan to boost agriculture and tourism won’t be enough to make up for lost oil export earnings, potentially leaving a big hole in public finances. Analysts have predicted a significant devaluation of the peso against the dollar as a result of falling investor confidence in Colombia. And oil industry groups claim production could fall too quickly to sustain Colombian demand until alternative fuels are available, forcing the country to rely on imports.

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Such concerns are voiced by politicians and fossil fuel advocates all over the world, and they have created a global stalemate on oil: almost all of the world’s top 33 oil producers have pledged under the Paris Agreement to try to limit global warming to an average of 1.5°C over the preindustrial era. But none have set timelines to end oil production that align with that goal, according to scientists. To have even a 50:50 shot of achieving the 1.5°C target, according to a March report by the International Institute of Sustainable Development (IISD), rich countries need to stop producing oil and gas by 2034, and countries in Colombia’s middle income-bracket must do so by 2043. In climate terms, Petro’s two-decade production phase-out is not ambitious—it’s just about acceptable.

The Barrancabermeja Refinery As Ecopterol To Invest Billions Through 2024
Storage tanks at the Ecopetrol Barrancabermeja refinery in Barrancabermeja, Colombia, on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022.Bloomberg/Getty Images

In political terms, though, Petro’s goal is radical. “This would be absolutely head and shoulders above what other countries are doing,” says Kevin Anderson, a scientist at Manchester University’s Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research, who led the IISD study. Norway is still offering dozens of new oil exploration licenses to companies each year and the U.K. is planning a fresh round of oil and gas contracts, even as their governments profess to be climate leaders, Anderson says. “These are both incredibly wealthy countries and would remain incredibly wealthy [without oil and gas production]. But they are demonstrating an almost complete disregard for climate science.” Petro’s oil policy, he adds, “is the sort of leadership we need on climate change and there’s very, very little of it around.”

No one wants to be the first to give up their oil earnings: of the tiny handful of countries that have put a moratorium on oil exploration in recent years, Belize is the only one where oil contributed more than 1% of GDP. And leaders don’t want to be accused of risking their countries’ energy security—a fear heightened by Russia-E.U. tensions over natural gas since the outbreak of the Ukraine war. “Angela Merkel decided to close all [of Germany’s] nuclear power plants. And today, Europe depends on Russia for energy,” Brazil’s Lula told me. He has pledged to invest in new domestic oil refinery infrastructure as a way to shield Brazilians from global price shocks.

A vision for the future

Given that global context, how did Petro manage to get a majority of Colombians to back his anti-oil platform? According to Claudia Navas, a Bogotá-based analyst for consultancy Control Risks, Petro didn’t present his oil plan as a stand-alone climate policy, and, on its own, it probably wasn’t a decisive factor for most voters. Rather, the oil phase-out is part of a comprehensive “vision for change” in Colombia, which appealed to working class people who have been excluded from Colombia’s previous economic development, Navas says. After his victory, Petro urged fellow progressives in Latin America “to stop thinking that a future of social justice and wealth redistribution could be built on a foundation of high oil, coal, and gas prices.”

It also helps that Petro could point to renewables as a major opportunity for Colombia. The country already produces almost 70% of its electricity from hydropower, and its varied climates give it above-average potential for both wind and solar, in addition to green hydrogen production. Together, those sources could allow Colombia to export clean energy, rather than oil, in the future.

In Barrancabermeja, a northern oil town with a strong leftist tradition, residents appear to have trusted that Petro’s plans won’t leave them jobless, voting overwhelmingly for him. As he congratulated the president-elect, the town’s mayor expressed hope that the area would not lose its “energy capital” status. “We hope that your energy transition proposal will open job opportunities for the industry that has historically sustained Barrancabermeja and the country’s economy.”

None of this is to say that fears for Colombia’s economy are unfounded. In the coming months and years, Petro will need to match his lofty rhetoric with a concrete plan for expanding low-carbon industries to replace fossil energy and revenues, in towns like Barrancabermeja and nationally. Petro’s performance will weigh heavily on leaders in other oil producing nations like Brazil. “The implementation will determine if Petro’s policy generates greater fear in the region about the energy transition,” Navas says, “or pushes people towards it.”

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Write to Ciara Nugent at ciara.nugent@time.com