In the midst of the debate on how to carry out the necessary energy transition in Colombia, and the future use of fossil resources such as natural gas or oil, the Colombian government seems determined to accelerate the transition towards the gradual but decisive abandonment of energy sources that until now have been the most used fuels and are produced domestically. The United Nations’ call for the use of clean energies contrasts with the energy self-sufficiency that countries such as Colombia have, thanks precisely to the use of these polluting fuels.
According to Global Energy Monitor, approximately 25% of the Colombian energy market runs on natural gas. It is second only to oil, which accounts for 38% of national energy. These two resources, plus coal, account for 76% of the country’s total energy. That is why the transition to renewable energies implies a major challenge and requires careful planning to guarantee the supply of energy to the population, and its economic sustainability.
Towards energy transition
The planned medium-term abandonment of polluting energies has been one of the star proposals of President Gustavo Petro’s government. His decision to move towards energy transition has been applauded internationally, although it has raised doubts in Colombia, as the country is an oil and gas producer.
Colombia is not only a self-sufficient country, but also an exporter of these resources. Specifically, oil and its derivatives generated an export income of more than US$19 billion in 2022. That is why abandoning this important market, even in a programmed way and in the medium term, generates controversy among many economic and political sectors of the country.
The Petro government has defended the importance of investing resources in water and solar power to accelerate the transition. Regions such as La Guajira, in the Colombian Caribbean, have hours and days of sunshine that could help generate the solar energy the country will need to replace the current sources.
Climate change and the increasingly devastating effects of natural phenomena such as El Niño, with a historic drought in Colombia and abnormally high temperatures, are demonstrating that it is indeed urgent to move towards clean energy. These were the conclusions of COP28, the global meeting on climate change, held in Dubai in early December last year.
Natural gas in Colombia
Colombia currently has three important sources of natural gas connected to the national gas pipeline network: the Ballena fields in Guajira, the Cusiana and Cupiagua fields in Casanare, and the fields in Córdoba and Sucre. The gas produced from these fields comfortably supplies domestic demand, both industrial and for domestic consumption.
Information differs on the autonomy that these current sources represent for the country, without adding new ones. Even official government information is discrepant, depending on who generates it. However, it is estimated that Colombia’s current autonomy with this resource alone is between ten and twenty years.
What President Petro’s government has announced is that it will stop prospecting for new oil and gas wells. It is not contemplating abandoning those that are already producing, so the supply of these fuels would guarantee a “smooth” transition to renewable sources.
However, natural gas is a much less polluting element than oil. In Colombia, its use has become widespread in the last 40 years, also because of its lower price. Today, eight out of ten Colombian households use natural gas for cooking and hot water. This type of energy has led to the abandonment of fuels such as firewood, which has led to less deforestation; propane gas pipes; and cocohol, a petroleum derivative used for cooking, which was very dangerous to handle.
Future of natural gas in the energy transition
The use of natural gas in public transportation, as a substitute for gasoline or diesel, has been presented around the world as an exercise in favor of the environment. Today, more than 750 buses in Bogotá’s mass transportation system use this means of energy, and its use is becoming increasingly important among cabs in this and other cities in the country.
This is why some experts see the role of natural gas as different from that of oil, and they advocate its controlled use in the energy transition towards renewable energies. While there seems to be a greater consensus on the need to progressively abandon the use of oil and coal, there is less agreement on natural gas because of its lesser responsibility for environmental pollution.
Although the government’s decision to bet on the change of energy model seems firm, it is clear that the risks are high and that the debate is still open, even within the government itself. Likewise, taking into account that the energy sources of a country are a structural and long-term issue, there is an evident need to reach a consensus on how to effect a transition which will change the model of the Colombian economy in the coming decades.