BOGOTA – Colombia's mining future is in metals and not coal, Minister of Mines and Energy Diego Mesa said, and the Andean country will continue developing oil and gas projects, including non-conventional deposits.
The coal sector's problems have accelerated during the coronavirus pandemic, Mesa told Reuters in an interview late on Thursday, forcing the world's fifth-largest coal exporter to weigh how to quickly broaden its mining industry.
"Metals are the big opportunity for Colombia because they're the minerals with the greatest demand," Mesa said.
With mining concessions covering just 3% of Colombia's territory and mining operations in less than 1% of the country, there is great opportunity, particularly for gold, copper and nickel mining.
"The country is practically unexplored, almost in its entirety," he said.
Four copper and gold projects, including the Quebradona and Gramalote mining developments, will be fundamental to diversifying output, he said.
Despite describing Colombia as a regional leader in renewable energy sources, Mesa said developing controversial non-conventional energy deposits is crucial to Latin America's fourth-largest economy.
"Fossil fuels remain absolutely essential for the economic development of the country ... it's irresponsible to think that in the short- to medium-term Colombia can simply do without fossil fuels," Mesa said.
Commercial development of non-conventional energy, including fracking for shale gas, is not currently permitted, but Mesa said contracts for pilot projects are expected by the end of this year and drilling could start in 2021.
Environmentalists say non-conventional techniques pose a threat to health and water quality and would add to the global climate crisis.
"Any economic activity has an impact on the environment," Mesa said. "We want to be sure exploitation of these resources can be done in a responsible way."
In June, the government cut its outlook on oil production to a range of 820 000 bbl/d to 850 000 bbl/d amid the coronavirus pandemic and a price war.
The country should reach the current guidance range, Mesa said.
"Hopefully we will reach an average of above 820 000 barrels per day."