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In Colombia, drilling pays the bills. The country’s leaders want to quit oil.


An oil field in the Arauca department of Colombia. Oil revenues in the country account for about a fifth of government income, roughly half of its foreign investment and nearly a 10th of gross domestic product.

By Max Bearak and Federico Ríos


Over the past four decades, Colombia has pumped billions of barrels of oil from under a vast savanna it shares with neighboring Venezuela. Through pipelines, the thick crude travels over the Andes and to the Caribbean coast, then onto tankers, mostly to the United States.


Much like another famous export of Colombia’s, it has an addictive quality.


In the span of a generation, the nation’s economy became dependent on oil revenue.


This year, voters moved to break that habit, electing Colombia’s first leftist president in two centuries of independence, a former guerrilla fighter and environmentalist who wants to phase out oil while heavily taxing coal mining companies.


“What is more poisonous for humanity: cocaine, coal or oil?” President Gustavo Petro asked world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly in September. “The opinion of power has ordered that cocaine is poison,” he said. “But instead, coal and oil must be protected, even when it can extinguish all humanity.”


Petro, 62, is at the vanguard of a new crop of climate-conscious Latin American leaders. South America and Central America’s political pendulum has swung left once again, but instead of arguing that extractive economies are needed to fund welfare programs, as many of their socialist contemporaries and predecessors have, Petro, President Gabriel Boric of Chile and others say fossil fuels have not lifted enough people out of poverty to justify their impact on the climate.


It is a radical proposition, if only because Colombia is still relatively poor and theoretically has decades more of oil revenue to reap. That money now accounts for around one-fifth of government income, roughly half of its foreign investment and nearly one-tenth of gross domestic product.


Colombia would be the first major oil-producing country in the world to stop drilling if Petro successfully decoupled the national budget from oil money. On the opening day of the U.N. climate talks in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, Petro doubled down on his promise.


“Surmounting the climate crisis means leaving behind the consumption of oil and coal,” he told leaders from nearly 200 nations. “This means a profound transformation of economies, a devaluing of powerful interests in these economies, a change in the global economy that the political leadership of humanity cannot get ahead of.”


His environment and energy ministers, both women with backgrounds as activists, have been assigned the task of reimagining Colombia’s economy without it.


“Because of our dependence on fossil fuels, we’ve set up the economy to fail if we don’t change it,” said Susana Muhamad, the environment minister. “We haven’t made a major new oil discovery in years. Besides that, you cannot ignore climate change. That is the whole point.”


The government, which has been in power for only three months, has asked for six more months to come up with the particulars of its energy transition. The big question is: What will replace Colombia’s oil revenue? Even tentative details are sketchy.


The uncertainty has already made many wary of Petro’s vision. In his campaign, he promised to end new permits for oil exploration and impose a windfall tax on oil and coal companies.


The concern is mostly economic, as Colombia already generates nearly 80% of its energy from renewable sources — mainly hydropower.


The country’s business elite, many of whom are invested in the oil industry, are watching as Colombia’s already weak currency dips further, reacting to Petro’s policy proposals, soaring energy prices and global inflation.


“We have to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, yes, but imagine choosing this very moment to do it,” said Óscar Iván Zuluaga, Colombia’s long-serving finance minister, now a businessperson in steelmaking, an industry that contributes between 7% and 9% of greenhouse gas emissions globally. “Petro has to take reality into account, not just ideology. That is the basis of governance.”


The specter of economic collapse in Venezuela, where government mismanagement has plunged the economy into free-fall, shadows Petro’s plans. More than 2 million Venezuelans have settled in Colombia in recent years, fleeing destitution.


“With Petro, we can also descend into total chaos,” said Erik Arciniegas, who runs a contracting company that services oil companies in Arauca, where two-thirds of the vote went to Petro’s opponent.


Arciniegas stands to lose business under Petro, but his argument against phasing out oil mirrors one that has gained traction across the developing world.


“The Americans and the Arabs are continuing to benefit from those riches,” he said. “I don’t understand why we should stop.”


That view is shared by the leftist leaders of Latin America’s two biggest economies, Brazil and Mexico, which each produce more oil than Colombia. At the climate summit in Egypt, Colombia’s delegation has tried to rally Latin American counterparts to forge regional consensus on “decarbonization” but so far have little to show for it.


In Brazil, environmentalists claimed a win with last month’s election victory of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, commonly known as Lula, who has a record of clamping down on deforestation. But few see him making similar moves to Petro.


When asked about Petro’s oil phaseout plans during the election, Lula told reporters, “In the case of Brazil, it is not a real possibility. Nor in the case of the world.”


Lula is expected to receive a warm welcome this week in Sharm el-Sheikh, where he will give a speech and hold discussions focused on protecting the Amazon rainforest. About 10% of the Amazon is in Colombia, and deforestation is far less rampant there than in Brazil.


Regional climate aspirations suffered a setback in October, when voters rejected a constitutional referendum in Chile that would have incorporated climate considerations into almost every aspect of governance.


“I’ve known Petro for 16 years, and since the beginning, he has criticized the Latin American left on their dependence on commodities,” Muhamad said. “He is very clear that because of climate change, more and more of governance will be about crisis management. The more we can prevent crises, the more we can move forward.”


Colombia has begun to experience more frequent effects of climate change as its glaciers melt and as La Nina and El Nino weather patterns become less predictable, exposing much of the country’s coast to cycles of flood and drought.


Muhamad, 45, once worked for Shell, one of the world’s biggest oil companies, as an environmental and human rights risk consultant. She grew disillusioned when she realized her self-described “ecotopian” vision of helping Shell transition to energy sources beyond oil and gas was unlikely.


She and her colleague, energy and mining minister Irene Vélez, 40, both spent much of the last couple of decades working with marginalized communities.


“I call myself an activist scholar,” Vélez said. She earned a doctorate focused on miners of Afro Colombian descent and taught a university course on extractive economies before becoming minister. “One of the things I have brought to government is a good understanding of the real problems that people face and the confidence that what we’re trying to solve is important,” she said.


The two ministers see their proposed energy transition as a “gran giro,” or a great turn, that would gradually eliminate oil and coal and reorient Colombia’s export economy around ecotourism and producing foodstuffs like grain and avocados.


Climate activists are holding on to hope that Petro will follow through on his promises.


“I’m not naive, but I am excited,” said Maria Laura Rojas, a co-founder of the environmental organization Transforma. “He won’t be able to do everything in a four-year term. But mainstreaming environment and life, that’s new. Colombia should be a laboratory for Latin America’s energy transition, and Latin America for the world’s.”


Even Petro’s opponents mostly wish him well.


At a protest in Arauca spearheaded by Arciniegas, the contractor, there were no denunciations of Petro, and the chants felt more like gentle suggestions.


“La reforma sí, pero no así,” went one. “Yes to reform, but not in this form.”

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