How do you feel when you look at the above picture? Scared? Terrified? Does it bear resemblance to any petrol plants you may have seen on planet earth? You may recognise it from the fictional world of middle-earth in the movie Lord of the Rings, in which Mordor, (pictured above) is depicted as a devastated, dark land without any green areas, where everything is polluted and subjected to the control of the evil villain, Sauron. A scary thought that each day we are arguably becoming closer and closer to this becoming a wide spread reality across the world due to our human demands.
Chevron’s dirty hand
Of course, the modern day Sauron is different depending on each individual’s point of view. Personally, being mestizo, (a mix of indigenous and Spanish descent,) and from the “middle of the world” in Quito, my Sauron is Chevron. Now, finding petroleum in your backyard must mean that all Amazonian tribes have hit the jackpot, but if an international petroleum company is the one breaking their garden fence to extract and sell it, you can understand why it has provoked a sentiment of exploitation and injustice amongst indigenous Ecuadorian people.
Chevron is an American state company which specializes in the exploitation of fossil fuels and several environmental organizations believe that this company has had the largest pollution in the history of the world. In 1972, it began its exploitation in the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest and during its stay in the middle of the world, 1.5 million barrels of oil were extracted from the Ecuadorian Amazon, during the process it poured 19 million gallons of waste into the region and spilled 17 million gallons of oil.
The company withdrew activity in the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest in 1992 and the government of Correa ordered Chevron to clean the impacted region, following a controversial and international court battle between Ecuador and USA, and deemed them responsible for the damage caused by the 19 million gallons of waste. The compensation was demanded by the Ecuadorian government due to the impact on not only human communities and endemic species of the rainforest but also on behalf of the planet itself, a devastating contribution to climate change. As expected, the United States courts refused to judge one of their companies for such a deadly cause in the Amazon. It’s been 27 years since Chevron withdrew from the Amazon rainforest, to date 820 perforated pools and damages have been found in the richest and most complex tropical forest in the world and have resulted in the displacement of native communities. They have been denied their homes, having lived for more than 10,000 years and known as the ancestral guardians of the biological heritage of this region.
Luckily the Sapara and Kichwa tribes declared victory and conservation over their territories know as Block 79 in October 2019, against Andes Petroleum and their joint venture with the Chinese giant CNCP (China National Petroleum Company).
But is it right that these native people should have to fight to stop gigantic trespassers?
The impact of Chevron in the Ecuador, (a country which represents one fifth of South America’s oil production and is the eighth most biodiverse nation in the world,) is just one example of petroleum hydrocarbon pollution and its devastating effects. Companies such as Chevron and their governments are fully aware of the impact that the petroleum hydrocarbons created by their activities, such as oil spillages upon the species of the ecosystems, yet ignorance continues to prevail. Whilst they could collaborate with governments to restrict their activities and fund bioremediation in already contaminated areas, this remains a secondary priority to their ploy to extract as much crude oil as possible.
The bright ray of glistening hope in this situation is the impact and increase in use of bioremediation deployed in the use of microorganisms. It is the key to biodegrade petroleum hydrocarbons produced by oil companies, and they can be designed to work in situ or ex situ. The major micro-organisms for petroleum hydrocarbon bioremediation are fungi and bacteria, but research into which are most effective remains to be carried out.
In situ refers to when the treatment is carried out at the site of origin of the toxic contaminant for instance. There will be waters that are contaminated, instead of removing them from the site of origin they are treated in the natural place. An advantage of this process is that it is the cheaper of the two options.
Ex situ refers to when the toxic material is transferred to an external area from the point of origin. For example, if a type of water is contaminated, it should be moved to a treatment plant where bioremediation is practiced. The advantage of this system is that it is more thorough, effective and efficient bioremediation as you can control the conditions to enhance the bioremediation.
So this should surely solve the problem, no? Unfortunately, recent research has shown that due to bio-augmentation where conditions in the environment are not stable, in other words, in situ bioremediation is not constant, we cannot rely on this process to combat the effects of petroleum hydrocarbons in the damaged ecosystems. However, when using ex situ bioremediation, whilst artificial conditions can be made to degrade the petroleum hydrocarbons, it can be claimed that it is an unrealistic (in terms of cost) and a limited form of bioremediation as replicating these conditions in the field is uncontrollable. Transporting just one small sample to “clean” using ex situ bioremediation will not solve the enormity of this problem.
Maybe we should turn to the form of bio-stimulation as a form of bioremediation in order to clean the damaged ecosystems. In the environment organisms can naturally recover from damage over a long period of time using bio-stimulation as microorganisms (fungi’s or bacteria) are injected into the damaged site and can enable the environment to recover over many years. However this is not compatible with the rate of damaged caused to the ecosystems and more research is needed to discover which consortium of microorganisms will accelerate the process equivalent to the damage caused.