SANTIAGO, Chile — A $7 billion project to dam two of the world’s wildest rivers for electricity has won environmental approval Monday from a Chilean government commission despite a groundswell of opposition.
The commissioners — all political appointees in President Sebastian Pinera’s government — concluded a three-year environmental review by approving five dams on the Baker and Pascua rivers in Aysen, a mostly roadless region of remote southern Patagonia where rainfall is nearly constant and rivers plunge from Andean glaciers to the Pacific Ocean through green valleys and fjords.
Monday’s vote — 11 in favor and one abstention — could prove to be pivotal for the future of Chile, which has a booming economy, vast mineral wealth and a determination to join the elite group of first-world nations.
With its energy-intensive mining industry clamoring for more power and living standards improving, some analysts say Chile must triple its capacity in just 15 years, despite having no domestic oil or natural gas. Chile imports 97 percent of its fossil fuels and depends largely on hydropower for electricity, creating a crisis when droughts drain reservoirs or faraway disputes affect energy imports.
Supporters say the economic benefits of the dam project justify carving roads through the heart of Chile’s remaining wilderness and running a thousand miles of transmission lines to power the capital, Santiago.
The dams together could generate 2.75 gigawatts, nearly a third of central Chile’s current capacity, within 12 years. The Aysen region will receive less expensive energy, jobs, scholarships and $350 million in infrastructure, including seaports and airports, said HidroAysen’s executive vice president, Daniel Fernandez.
But people in the sparsely populated area are divided. Only three dozen families would be relocated, but the dams would drown 14,000 acres, require carving clear-cuts through forests, and eliminate whitewater rapids and waterfalls that attract ecotourism. They also would destroy habitat for the endangered Southern Huemul deer: Fewer than 1,000 of the diminutive animals, a national symbol, are believed to exist.