By Marcelo Teixeira
LIMA (Reuters) - Latin American countries, participating in crucial global climate talks being hosted in the region this week, came under criticism for their plans to drastically increase oil production.
Some influential Latin American nations in the negotiations for a new global treaty to reduce heat-trapping gases have significant plans to increase production and use of fossil fuels, seen as the main culprit of global warming.
Brazil is going full speed with investments in areas off its coast that could hold up to 35 billion barrels of oil.
Scrambling for energy as a severe drought depletes hydro power plants' reservoirs, the country has just approved new coal-fired plants that would be partially financed by the government.
Mexico has recently approved new legislation that would allow foreign investments in oil production, breaking up local company Pemex's monopoly. The country estimates it has some 27 billion barrels of unexplored oil.
Ecuador, Colombia and Peru all have similar plans in place.
"Mexico's policies do not go in the same direction. At the same time that they approved an ambitious climate change law, they reformed the energy legislation to increase oil investment," said Gabriela Nino, public policy coordinator at the Mexican Center for Environmental Rights.
Peru, which is hosting the talks and has the presidency of the climate negotiating process, is currently debating whether to exempt some oil companies from environmental impact assessments with the aim of speeding up exploration projects.
Guy Edwards, a climate expert at Brown University who studies Latin American policies, says countries in the region have been successful in projecting a climate-friendly stance that does not entirely reflect the reality.
"If you take the domestic policies of many of these countries, the rhetoric is still much ahead of the action," he said.
The countries defend their stance. They say they are also making large investments in renewable energy and reducing deforestation, for example.
Natalie Unterstell, a director at Brazil's Secretariat of Strategic Affairs, said adverse climate conditions in the last three years forced the country to open up to more thermal power production, including coal.
Roberto Dondisch, Mexico's leading negotiator at Lima, said the country plans to greatly expand the use of natural gas coming from new exploration activities.
"Switching the fuel at thermal power plants from coal to natural gas will allow the country to greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions," he said.
(Reporting by Marcelo Teixeira; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)