Discussion of the bill that seeks to protect glaciers has triggered the industry’s alarms. 

Four sites would be forced to stop work, investment in new projects would be threatened and  around 34,000 people would lose their jobs, according to estimates by the Chilean Copper Commission (Cochilco). 

Chile hosts 82% of the glaciers in South America and in recent years over 340 hectares of glaciers have been destroyed as a result of global warming and mining, according to Greenpeace statistics. However, in the opinion of Mr. Joaquín Villarino, the Mining Council Executive Chairman «90% of the glaciers in this country have dramatically decreased their surface area over the last 30 or 40 years without mining being involved.

Chile does not have an exclusive regulatory framework for glaciers. However, they become protected areas when initiatives are evaluated during the environmental assessment process of the Environmental Impact Assessment System (SEIA in Spanish). The initial need for the law arose in 2005, during Michelle Bachelet’s first government, as a result of events at the Pascua Lama mining project which proposed working on three glaciers. 

According to statements by glaciologist Pablo Wainstein, the initiative currently being discussed in the Senate includes concepts and terminology that are not aligned with international conventions. It assumes that all glaciers are equally strategic or significant, and indicates that only «scientific research and tourism» can be carried out on glaciers. Any productive activity must be authorized by the law of the Republic for it to be discussed in Congress. It also states that those who undertake illegal work will be sentenced to imprisonment.

«The only country that has passed a law in this respect is Argentina, where the decision has been taken to halt mining. The government is interested in protecting glaciers, but also in identifying compatible business opportunities, especially when there is no solid scientific basis to ensure genuine preservation,» said Mr. Baldo Prokurica, Mining Minister, during his address to Congress.

«If the bill is approved as it stands, it would lead to the paralysis of Los Pelambres, Andina, El Teniente and Los Bronces,» said Mr. Pablo Terrazas, who at the time of the interview was Mining Undersecretary.

The authorities are afraid that the ambiguities caused by the bill will result in more work for lawyers and reduced legal certainty. Companies will not invest in searching for deposits, if they know beforehand that they cannot exploit any discoveries and exploration is being discouraged. Chilean leadership in the mining sector would be in dispute. 

Mining would reduce by 20%, but if the retroactive nature of the bill is taken into account, this percentage rises to 33% based on copper concentrate production.

The discussion should lead to a bill that protects glaciers and allows the industry to develop, according to former Undersecretary Mr. Terrazas, because the bill would not only affect mining, it would also result in difficulties to develop electricity interconnection projects with Argentina, electricity generation in the mountains, tourism and ski centers, and mountain infrastructure. 

For now the bill has passed to the Senate Mining Committee for discussion, subsequently the environment commission and finally a vote. 

The Executive may be considering amending the project environmental evaluation mechanism, by eliminating the concept of compensation for environmental damage when a glacier is affected. This alludes to the fact that if the project prevents glaciers from being damaged, it would not be necessary to compensate for any damage.

Accordingly, Senator Guido Girardi, promoter of the bill, said that if the Executive aims to protect glaciers, there would be no problem, but if they are going to «defend the pockets of the mining industry,» he will vote against it.

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