WILLIAM FERNANDO MARTINEZ
October 12, 2007
ESTACION BALLENAS, Colombia --
The leaders of Venezuela and Colombia inaugurated a natural gas pipeline between their countries Friday and promised to push ahead with ambitious plans to boost regional energy ties.
The 139-mile undersea pipeline opened by Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and Colombia's Alvaro Uribe in northern Colombia has the capacity to pump 500 million cubic feet of natural gas a day between the two countries, said Rafael Ramírez, Venezuela's energy and oil minister.
It will initially carry 200 million to 300 million cubic feet of gas daily from Colombia to Venezuela, he added.
In a speech after the inauguration, Chávez defended his plan to extend a vast gas pipeline across South America.
''Some say that I'm mad, that this gas pipeline is madness. Whoever says that should go and see the pipelines in Europe that run from Siberia to Portugal,'' said Chávez, dressed in his traditional red shirt.
Venezuela and Colombia will study possibilities for extending the pipeline opened Friday to Panama ''and then to the rest of Central America,'' Ramírez said.
Chávez said such an extension would make Central American countries less dependent on outside sources such as the United States and reduce pressure for free-market policies.
Uribe, Washington's closest ally in the region, announced that Colombia would formally r
equest to join a regional development bank backed by Chávez -- one of the U.S. officials' greatest headaches in the area -- that is to launch next month in Caracas.
''Our entrance into the Bank of the South is not a rejection of the World Bank or the Inter-American bank but an expression of solidarity and loyalty with the South American brotherhood,'' he said.
Chávez has pushed the bank as a counterweight to U.S. influence, especially the U.S.-dominated World Bank, and as a path to economic independence for the region.
Venezuelan officials say the pipeline opened on Friday is to flow from Colombia to Venezuela until 2011, and then reverse course to carry gas from Venezuela's vast, largely untapped reserves to Colombia.
Chávez and Uribe agreed in 2005 to build the pipeline between Colombia's La Guajira gas fields and Venezuela's Paraguana refining complex -- the country's largest -- which requires large amounts of natural gas for petroleum refining.
The Venezuelan government has said the pipeline will also help advance a proposed 5,600-mile continental pipeline that would run from Venezuela to Brazil, Argentina and other countries.