Colombia court maintains moratorium on fracking

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia’s top administrative court maintained a temporary moratorium on the use of fracking on Tuesday, stymieing potential pilot projects amid ongoing arguments in a wider case regarding the use of the technique to extract oil and gas.

A wall with the carved phrase that reads "Superior Council of the Judiciary, Council of State" is seen on the facade of the Palace of Justice in Bogota, Colombia September 10, 2019. REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez

The decision by three magistrates from the Council of State, which is tasked with ruling on administrative matters, comes amid a larger case about the use of hydraulic fracturing, which breaks up rock formations with pressurized liquid.

Regulations for development of non-conventional oil deposits were suspended in the Andean country late last year as part of the ongoing lawsuit filed against the energy ministry by an environmental lawyer.

While there is no law against fracking, which is not yet widely used in Colombia, the government says regulations are needed. Fracking’s possible use has sparked vitriolic debate among lawmakers, activists, officials and regular citizens.

“The measure that proposed giving an open road to the exercise of fracking has been defeated while it is decided whether its regulation is legal or not,” the court said in a statement about its decision.

The statement outlined the arguments submitted in favor of lifting of the moratorium but did not say why the magistrates decided to maintain it.

Fracking is credited for booming oil and gas production in the United States, but environmental activists have blamed it for water pollution and earthquakes.

State-run oil company Ecopetrol is acting as a co-defendant in the larger suit and had asked the court to lift the suspension measure so it can mount a pilot project.

The company has said it is looking to spend $500 million on exploring unconventional deposits over the next three years, but the evaluation of its request to start a pilot project was suspended by the environmental licensing authority pending the court’s decision on reinstating regulations.

ConocoPhillips and Canacol also had their requests for fracking licenses shelved.

“Today what’s important is to work to win more consensus between the different parties in the debate, to keep creating awareness around the importance of the industry for economic growth in the country,” German Espinosa, the head of oil services guild Campetrol, said in a statement.

The Colombia Petroleum Association said in a statement it regretted the court’s decision, which it said could affect investor confidence and put the country’s fiscal sustainability at risk.

A representative from anti-fracking group the Alliance for a Colombia Free of Fracking hailed the decision in a live video on social media, but said the group’s fight against the technique would continue.

An expert commission convened by the government to study fracking said in February that three pilot projects must be strictly monitored.

The energy ministry has said fracking could nearly triple the country’s oil and gas reserves.

Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Lisa Shumaker