New Colombia President Aims for Big Energy Changes

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Colombian President Gustavo Petro Inauguration

Gustavo Petro was inaugurated as president of Colombia on Sunday, ushering in what is likely to be a radically different energy policy than that of his predecessors.

Taking office with his vice president, Afro-Colombian environmentalist Francia Marquez, Petro first attended a ceremonial inauguration by members of Colombia’s long-marginalized indigenous community before receiving the presidential sash from the daughter of Carlos Pizarro Leongomez, a former member of the left-wing M19 guerilla group to which Petro also belonged who was assassinated while running for president in 1990.

During his inaugural address, Petro vowed to transition Colombia to renewable energy by denying the issuance of any new oil contracts and moving away from fossil fuels.

“We must and can find a model that is economically, socially and environmentally sustainable,” said Petro. “We are willing to transition to an economy without coal and without oil, [but] we are not the ones who emit greenhouse gasses (GHGs). It is the rich in the world who do it, bringing human beings closer to extinction, but we do have the largest sponge for absorbing these gasses after the oceans: the Amazon rainforest.”

Cash for Carbon

Petro, who made the environment a centerpiece of his presidential campaign, also suggested that Colombia’s creditors should be willing to accept climate action from his government instead of cash, echoing a similar deal proposed by Argentine President Alberto Fernandez at the UN Climate Summit last November.

Noting that “it is so difficult to obtain the money that the agreed carbon taxes and climate funds should grant to save something so essential, “ Petro went on “to propose to humanity to exchange external debt for internal expenses to save and recover our jungles, forests and wetlands."

Petro said that his government would "confront the uncontrolled deforestation" of Colombia as well as promote the domestic development of renewable energy.

"Reduce foreign debt and we will spend the surplus on saving human life. If the [International Monetary Fund] helps to exchange debt for concrete action against the climate crisis, we will have a new prosperous economy and a new life for humanity," he said.

Cabinet Moves

For the important portfolio of the Minister of Mines and Energy, Petro appointed Irene Velez Torres, a professor at the Universidad del Valle in Cali who has described herself as a “researcher–activist." She joins an ideological mosaic of cabinet appointments that range from Minister of Finance Jose Antonio Ocampo, a former UN official who previously held the position in the government of Ernesto Samper in the 1990s, to Minister of Labor Gloria Ines Ramírez, an unreconstructed Communist and admirer of late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez.

“The cabinet appointments are a mixture of technical acumen but also people to please his base,” says Sergio Guzman, the director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a Bogota-based think tank. “There are a number of appointments aimed at pleasing the markets, but I don’t necessarily see a coherent message that Petro is trying to send. What matters is who is able to outlast the first year.”

On Monday, the new government’s first full day in office, Ocampo said the Petro administration would seek to add $11.53 billion to its yearly budget by imposing higher taxes on both high-earning individual taxpayers and exports of coal and oil.

Taking a Strong Hand

During Petro's tenure as mayor of Colombia’s capital, Bogota, from 2012-15, which was tumultuous even by the standards of Colombian politics — he was briefly removed from office for alleged malfeasance — he gained a reputation for rapidly cycling through deputies and for having what some have charged is an abrasive, authoritarian personality.

In an interview with the Colombian magazine Cambio this past June, Petro said that while he favored a "gradual" transition away from fossil fuels, in the near term his government would seek to export more coal. However, he also said would seek to stop coal production during his tenure as president.

"I have to prepare the country for what I know is going to come, and that is that those mines are going to close," he said.

Colombia at present has around 1.8 billion barrels in proved crude oil reserves, good for less than seven years of consumption, according to government estimates. The country's oil production was hit by both the Covid-19 pandemic and political unrest in recent years and fell from about 880,000 barrels per day in full-year 2019 to 780,000 b/d in 2020 and under 740,000 b/d in 2021.

Policy and Regulation, Low-Carbon Policy, Elections
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