Gas project puts Spanish World Heritage Site in danger

Posted on December, 03 2014

Gas exploitation of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Coto Doñana in Spain could be authorized by the Andalusian government following a claim by Spanish energy company Gas Natural-Fenosa. WWF is urging the Spanish government and European Commission to take immediate legal action and protect one of Europe’s most vulnerable natural sites from harmful fossil fuel exploitation.
Gas exploitation of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Coto Doñana in Spain could be authorized by the Andalusian government following a claim by Spanish energy company Gas Natural-Fenosa. WWF is urging the Spanish government and European Commission to take immediate legal action and protect one of Europe’s most vulnerable natural sites from harmful fossil fuel exploitation.

The risks of gas exploitation in Doñana – which has also been designated a Natura 2000 protected area – include pollution of groundwater, explosions in case of leaks in the gas storage facility, as well as potential seismic reactions similar to those occurring near Valencia in 2013, where a similar gas storage project known as ‘Castor’ caused hundreds of earthquakes.

Gas Natural-Fenosa is threatening to claim €358m EUR from the Andalusian government unless it gets authorization to build 20 km of gas pipelines, 14 new exploration sites and a permanent huge underground storage facility. WWF has repeatedly expressed concern to EU and Spanish authorities that these plans would jeopardize Doñana’s ecosystem, and that the serious environmental and security risks related to such a massive project have not been correctly evaluated. 

“Spain’s most emblematic Natura 2000 site, whose protection was one of WWF’s first achievements over 50 years ago, should not be put at risk for the benefit of one private company,” said Juan Carlos del Olmo, CEO of WWF-Spain. “If the European Commission does not act now, and ask the Spanish authorities to do a proper environmental impact assessment of this dangerous project, Doñana could become an industrial facility forever.”
Doñana is an area of outstanding natural beauty thanks the richness of its habitats and species. It is one of the most important wetlands in Europe giving shelter to more than six million migratory birds and highly endangered species such as the Iberian lynx and the imperial eagle. The area is also a Spanish National Park, a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention, and a Biosphere Reserve.
In 2013, WWF filed a complaint against the Spanish government for issuing an Environmental Impact Assessment in favour of the gas project that presented several important irregularities. The assessment did not evaluate the impact on habitats and species protected by European Union’s Birds & Habitats Directives (representing the cornerstone of Europe's nature conservation policy), and was cut into four pieces to avoid evaluating its overall impact. As a result, the European Commission opened a legal case that was closed after the Andalusian regional government committed not to issue the permits before a proper assessment was completed by the Spanish government. 
The gas company is now threatening to claim €358m EUR from the Andalusian government unless the project is authorized. WWF is concerned that due to heavy pressure from Gas Natural-Fenosa, the regional government might give up unless immediate action is taken in Brussels. WWF-Spain has launched an online petition asking the president of the regional government, the socialist Susana Diaz, to defend Doñana against the unacceptable demands of the energy company. 
“Doñana is unique. It is among the most important wetlands in the world giving shelter to millions of birds and endangered species. It is the jewel in the crown of Europe’s protected areas, and that is why it was designated a World Heritage Site. The European Commission cannot turn its back and watch an area of this natural importance succumb to short-term energy interests,” Said Tony Long, Director of WWF European Policy Office.

“As the UN climate conference is starting in Lima and the IPCC clearly says that avoiding dangerous climate change will require leaving most remaining fossil fuels in the ground, authorizing more gas extraction is a complete nonsense.”
Recently at the IUCN World Park Congress in Sydney, Doñana was named as one of the natural sites of "significant concern". WWF also joined eight other organizations in calling for natural World Heritage Sites, like Doñana, to be no-go zones for oil, gas and mining exploration and extraction.

For further information:

Audrey Gueudet
Climate & Energy Media and Communication Officer
WWF European Policy Office
Mobile: +32 494 03 20 27
Guillermo Prudencio Vergara
Communications, WWF-Spain
Mobile: +34 608 006 976

Notes to the editor on the Doñana case:
Coto Doñana

Considered one of the most valuable wetlands in Europe, Spain’s Coto Doñana, located where the Guadalquivir River reaches the Atlantic Ocean, is a sanctuary for millions of migratory birds and endangered species like the imperial eagle and Iberian lynx. Doñana is a key stopover wetland for millions of migratory birds on the route from northern Europe right down to southern Africa. However, mining, farming, tourism and infrastructure development all pose a serious threat to the area. 

Active involvement of WWF in Doñana began in the 1960s, when the organization became the owner of a significant part of the Coto Doñana and promoted the creation of the National Park, the first of a series that have made of the area one of the most prized reserves in Europe.

For further information:
In Spanish:

The project

In 2011, a subsidiary of Gas Natural-Fenosa, one of Spain’s main energy companies, presented a huge new project to expand its existing facilities in Doñana Protected Area, one of Spain’s most iconic natural spaces and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The project implied the building of 20 km of gas pipes, 14 new gas exploration wells, as well as a permanent and huge underground gas storage site. This would mean that Doñana becomes an industrial facility forever, as industrial use would prevail over conservation. Habitats and species protected by EU directives would be affected by this project, including the critically endangered Iberian Lynx.

The political process

In January 2013, the Spanish Environmental Ministry issued a positive Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) of the Gas Natural project. To avoid evaluating its bigger synergic impacts, the project was cut into 4 pieces, although they were obviously interconnected and affected the same natural area (fragmentation of projects to avoid a proper impact assessment is forbidden under EU regulations). In addition to that, the EIA did not evaluate the project’s impacts on Natura 2000 sites and on species protected by EU directives, nor the accumulated effects with the previous gas projects in the area.

All this concerns about the EIA, stated by WWF, were shared by Andalusian regional Government (Junta de Andalucia), the authority that had to give Gas Natural the permits after the positive EIA.  The Junta de Andalucía believed that there was no proof that the project would not affect Natura 2000 network.

At the same time, WWF started a complaint against the Spanish government for issuing the EIA. As a result, the European Commission opened a legal case to study whether or not the process violated EU laws. The case was closed in July 2014 when the Junta committed not to issue the permits before a proper assessment of the project’s impacts was made by the Spanish government.

Gas Natural pressures

In November 2014, the company Gas Natural announced that it would claim 358 million euros from the Junta de Andalucia, accusing them of blocking their gas project in Doñana. The Junta has asked the European Commission (EC) for help, to have the legal assurance and the strength to block this dangerous project for Doñana. The EC has not taken any action yet, and as pressure is mounting from Gas Natural, WWF is concerned that the Junta might give up and authorise the project. 

Political figures linked to the Doñana case

Felipe González, former President of Spain, is member of the board and stakeholder of Gas Natural-Fenosa. Just one month before the Spanish Government issued the positive EIA of the gas project in Doñana, Felipe González resigned as president of the advisory board of Doñana Protected Area, a stewardship body composed of public authorities, farmers, scientists and environmental NGOs. WWF published an open letter directed to Felipe Gonzalez, which was signed by more than 10.000 people, asking him to use his position in Gas Natural to stop the gas project in Doñana.

Another political figure directly involved in this issue is the new Commissioner for Climate and Energy, Miguel Arias Cañete. Cañete was the Head of the Spanish Environmental Ministry when the controversial EIA was approved.
The ‘Castor’ case, seismic impacts of gas storage

In Summer 2013, a gas storage project known as ‘Castor’ –located near Castellón and Tarragona, in the Mediterranean coast of Spain- started to cause hundreds of small earthquakes –up to 3,6 in the Richter scale- in the area. The situation caused great alarm and protests from local population and authorities. In October 2013, the project was blocked indefinitely by the Spanish Government, after acknowledging that there was a big probability that the earthquakes were directly linked to the gas storage project. The owner of ‘Castor’, Spanish construction company ACS, has received a massive compensation of 1.350 million euros. The case was really controversial because the potential seismic risks of the project were not evaluated by the Spanish Government before giving the permits to ACS. The project was funded under the Europe 2020 Project Bond Initiative. 

This is the reason why WWF denounced that the gas storage project in Doñana also failed to evaluate these risks. The Environmental Impact Assessment did not include a study of the potential seismic risks of the project, even though it could affect the Doñana aquifer and the local population. The ‘Castor’ project proved the lack of security linked with this kind of gas storage projects.

What the European Commission can do

Right now, the EU Commission could take action re-opening the legal case about the gas projects. The case was closed when the Junta of Andalusia committed not to give the authorisation to Gas Natural. The European Commission should ensure that EU directives are fully respected, especially in a natural area of such international importance as Doñana. The European Commission could request the Spanish authorities to evaluate correctly the impacts of the project on the Natura 2000 network, and its synergic effects. This would give the Junta of Andalusia the strength they need to withstand Gas Natural pressures and reject it.
A group of Greater flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber) in a marsh, at sunset, Coto Doñana National Park, Andalucia, Spain.
© Jorge SIERRA / WWF-Spain
Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus) "Sila" carrying one of her two newborn cubs ("Brisa") "Sila" is one of the females for the Spanish captive breeding program of the Iberian Lynx in the Coto Doñana National Park, Spain. The birth of the two cubs in May 2005 was considered a major success of this national programme.
© WWF /Ministerio de Medioambiente y Junta de Andalucia