60-Second Earth

Keeping Oil Underground in Ecuador

The United Nations partners with Ecuador in a bid to pay for the privilege of keeping oil underground and a tropical forest undisturbed. David Biello reports

Yasuni National Park in Ecuador is home to one of the richest concentrations of plant and animal species on the planet. More tree species grow in a single hectare of Yasuni than in all of North America and the reserve hosts an indigenous group still living in isolation. 

Now the United Nations Development Programme has set up a fund to pay the government of Ecuador to keep Yasuni unspoiled by leaving as much 850 million barrels of crude oil under the park's ground. 

At $80 per barrel that's nearly $70 billion worth. And roughly 400 million metric tons of CO2 that wouldn't enter the atmosphere. 

All Ecuador wants in return is $3.6 billion over the next decade for a pledge never to develop the oil field. Countries that paid into the UNDP fund would receive a credit for the avoided greenhouse gas emissions, potentially offsetting some of their own oil burning. Ecuador plans to use the money to develop renewable energy. 

Germany has committed to pay some $50 million per year over the next 12 years. Other commitments remain sparse on the ground despite the plan having been floated since 2007. 

As it is, oil accounts for more than half of Ecuador's exports as well as one-third of the government's budget. 

But Ecuador's experience with Chevron may have convinced it that oil actually stinks—an epic lawsuit has been fought for nearly two decades over oil spills and toxic waste left behind by previous development. Perhaps Yasuni is a sign of the end of the petroleum age

—David Biello

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