Dec. 11 (UPI) -- Total S.A. said Monday it dispatched a ship to begin drilling off French Guyana's coast, and assured it won't damage coral reefs in the area.
The move comes just days after Brazil denied it a license for work on its offshore portion, and despite warnings from environment protection organizations.
"The closest reef identified is located 30 kilometers (19 miles) from the drilling point and is not coral," Total said in a statement.
"Total obviously does not conduct drilling operations in coral reefs," the company added.
Scientists who carried out a 50-day oceanographic survey on-site in 2017, including those from the Paris National Museum of Natural History, said it is "a discontinuous rocky plateau ... presenting scattered biological communities," according to Total.
Paris-based Total said it has authorization from French Guyana authorities, dated October 22, to begin drilling. It plans to carry an offshore perforation program with transparency and "invites NGOs, who wish to do so, to visit its installations to understand the precautionary measures."
The area to be explored is about 93 miles off the Guyana coast, located close to the Brazilian border, in a region near the delta of the Amazon river. The exploration map supplied by Total only includes offshore Guyana areas, and none in Brazil.
On Friday, the Brazilian Environment Ministry denied Total a license to explore nearby offshore Brazil areas, which are located in proximity to the area of the planned French Guyana drillings.
The agency cited "deep uncertainties" and a "set of technical problems identified during the licensing process." This was "aggravated by the possibility of any oil spill affecting biogenic reefs present in the region, and in a broader way, marine biodiversity."
Separately, environmental protection organization Greenpeace has warned starting about two years that a team of experts discovered in 2016 a marine reef which runs from French Guyana to the Brazilian state of Maranhao, covering an area bigger than London.
"While experts have just started to study the reef and its implications, oil companies Total and BP are already planning to explore the area for potential oil drilling.It is estimated that reserves are approximately 15 to 20 billion barrels," Greenpeace said at the time.
"This reef system is important for many reasons," Greenpeace said. "It has a huge potential for new species, and it is also important for the economic well-being of fishing communities."
"We must defend the reef and the entire region at the mouth of the Amazon River basin," the organization added.
French Guiana is an overseas department and region of France. It has a population of about 274,000 people.
Total also warned Tuesday against any navigation in close proximity to the perforation activity it plans to carry out. The drilling ship carries 200 people and will work with five support vessels around it.
"As such, a safety perimeter forbids navigation of all unauthorized watercraft within 500 meters (1,640 feet) of the well, in compliance with current legislation," Total said.
Greenpeace has in the past carried out protests in or near offshore installations, as well as targeted oil company offices.
Some 250 activists disrupted Total's annual general meeting in June in France "to peacefully protest Total's plans to drill" in the area, Greenpeace said.