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Colombia: Oil Exploration Stopped for a Greener Future

Updated: Nov 28, 2023

As the world scrabbles to deal with the climate crisis, Colombia’s decision to halt oil exploration raises the question of whether other countries will make similarly ambitious plans, as Aimee Louise Jones finds.

Pump-jack mining crude oil with the sunset

Photo by Jan Kronies

Amid the climate crisis, good news can seem hard to come by. In this context, the decision by Colombian president Gustavo Petro to stop issuing new oil exploration permits attracted a lot of buzz, as well as criticism.

Colombia's Promise

Announcing the move at the World Economic Forum in January 2023, minister for energy and mines Irene Vélez said, “We have decided not to award new oil and gas exploration contracts, and while that has been very controversial, it’s a clear sign of our commitment in the fight against climate change”.

While the decision has indeed sparked much debate, it did not come as a surprise, as Petro had made his stance on Colombia’s overreliance on oil clear during his campaign for the presidency. With oil making up 40% of exports and 12% of government income in Colombia, however, this is a very ambitious change.

Former president Julio César Vera stated that by stopping oil exploration permits, Colombia would be “killing their golden-egg laying goose". Others have said that halting oil exploration will not change the global demand for fossil fuels but will instead hurt Colombia’s economy.

Countering these arguments, Petro stated that the end of oil exploration permits shows a clear commitment in the global fight against climate change. He pointed to tourism as a key sector for investment; with enviable natural beauty, the South American country has potential for further growth in this industry. Petro has also highlighted Colombia’s potential for producing clean energy, which could eventually fill the gap left by fossil fuels.

"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." - Time search function

The Future of Fossil Fuels

Other environmentalists have said that while Colombia’s decision on oil exploration is a step in the right direction, there are other key environmental issues within the country that are not being addressed. For example, they note that cattle ranching and unsustainable agriculture are driving deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. This illustrates the multifaceted nature of the climate crisis and loss of biodiversity, which require action on various fronts.

Many countries, including almost all of the top 33 oil-producing countries, have pledged under the Paris Agreement to try and limit global warming to an average of 1.5 degrees Celsius. However, none of them have set timelines to end oil production that would help them to achieve this goal.

At the COP26 summit, approximately 20 countries also pledged to stop financing fossil fuels abroad by the end of 2022. The countries, which included the UK and the US, committed to moving funding towards clean energy instead. However, rich countries have come under fire for failing to stick to their promises, and continuing to invest in fossil fuel projects overseas.

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In a significant move, US president Joe Biden told federal agencies in 2021 to stop funding for many new fossil fuel projects abroad. Despite this, leaders of America’s Export-Import Bank made the decision to lend almost $100 million towards the exploration of an oil refinery in Indonesia. Environmental group Friends of the Earth labelled this a “direct violation” of the commitments that the Biden administration had made to ending federal support for such projects overseas.

An Outlier on the Global Stage?

With the world struggling to contain climate change and deal with its impacts, positive steps such as that taken by Colombia can provide a basis for cautious optimism. Other countries are facing criticism for not staying true to their claims and commitments to combat climate change. As Colombia now makes the first step away from fossil fuels, it remains to be seen whether other countries will follow suit.


Researched by Alexandra Kenney / Editor: Laura Pollard / Online Editor: Harry Hetherington


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