Biden, thanks for the rude awakening

Elison Karuhanga

What you need to know:

  • By mid this decade, we shall see the first tanker of Ugandan crude leaving the Tanzanian port of Tanga. 

Dear President Joe Biden,

Greetings from Uganda. I read this week that you approved the controversial Willow Oil Project in Alaska. I understand, sir, that this must not have been an easy decision for you. Many will be surprised by this. We recall the speech made by Al Gore at COP27 asking Africa not to produce gas. We see that Alaska is the home of the polar bears, bowhead whales, and wolves and is one of the most ecologically sensitive places on earth.

Mr President, I must confess that I too looked at this decision and thought it was problematic. I recalled how Secretary of State Antony Blinken had flown to DR Congo to ask President Felix Tshisekedi not to allow drilling near Virunga National Park.

I, however, understand how difficult this decision must have been for you. Few people outside of the United States will know how much work you have put into the energy transition. In August 2022, you were able to persuade Congress to pass the Inflation Reduction Act which represented the most significant action the US has taken to fight climate change.

Under this law, the US will spend close to $369b on boosting clean energy in America, including going as far as subsidising the cost of electric cars. No fair person, sir, can question your clean energy credentials. In Uganda, we too have a decent environmental track record to speak of. We contribute far less than 0.01 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Almost 90 percent of our electricity is generated from clean energy sources. We have a climate law, have recently strengthened our environmental laws, and are seriously looking at building capacity for electric vehicle transportation. Our oil project will be one of the lowest-emitting oil projects in the world.

The US is obviously the largest oil and gas producer and consumer on earth. Your country consumes almost 20 million barrels of oil per day. Uganda consumes 37,000 barrels per day. So, thank you for understanding that the real action must start in the US and not in Africa, which collectively uses less energy than the US gambling industry. Bitcoin consumes more electricity than 200 million Nigerians. As it has been argued, while the world needs to decarbonise, Africa needs to industrialise.

Yet even in the US, the world’s most industrialised nation, the richest country in the history of humanity, you are still licensing oil projects. The US is governed by one of the most environmentally friendly administrations on earth. This must have been a decision made slowly, seriously, and agonisingly. I am sure, sir, that you noticed the reality of the energy situation. 

Even with all your interventions, America still needs more oil. The idea of a transition away from fossil fuels is easier said than done. There are those who argue that the world cannot afford another oil project. The logic is simple. If no new oil projects come on board, oil will be scarce and more expensive, forcing countries to move to alternative energy sources.

In 2022, we saw the folly of this logic. The increased oil price caused, in part by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, only led to record profits for oil companies, global inflation, and a dip in living standards. The rise in the price of oil hit the poorest people on earth the hardest. By allowing drilling in Alaska, it is clear that even in the US, this reality hit home. In this regard, you do stand like a “shining city on a hill.” Let’s fight for the environment without burying our heads in the sand.

If the richest country in human history can see the need to increase its oil production, then why should countries such as Uganda and Mozambique be stopped?  It takes a great amount of callous naivety to try and use Western institutions to block African projects. That is not environmental conservation. It is poverty conservation. Please, sir, don’t support poverty conservationists.

Uganda, despite some of the harshest opposition from Western groups, will press on. To paraphrase former US president JF Kennedy, by mid this decade, we shall see the first tanker of Ugandan crude leaving the Tanzanian port of Tanga. 

We hope you shall have our back, just like you have stood for the energy security of America. On that day, allow me to write back to you quoting the words of US Vice President Kamala Harris who famously said, “We did it, Joe. We did it.”

Elison Karuhanga is an advocate and partner at Kampala Associated Advocates 
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