East African petroleum: It is time to drill

Elison Karuhanga

What you need to know:

“The fact is we are breathing terrible air in the dark. We are victims of multiple jeopardy.” 

This week Uganda hosted the 10th East African Petroleum Conference and Exhibition (EAPCE). It was a very successful conference where East African partner states were able to showcase their petroleum potential to a number of investors.

The conference key speakers were Dr Elly Karuhanga and Mr NJ Ayuk, the executive chairman of the Africa Energy Chamber. An array of international guests attended the conference from all over the world. The conference was opened by the vice president. The minister of Energy, Ms Ruth Nankabirwa, and her State Minister, Mr Peter Lokeris, together with the Kenyan Cabinet Secretary for Energy Davis Chirchir attended literally every session of the conference. We saw a large delegation from Tanzania with the Tanzanian Ports Authority, Tanzanian regulators and the Tanzanian Petroleum Development Corporation (TPDC), to mention a few.

It was good to listen to and learn from different parts of the region. It was good to hear the challenges countries are facing and how they are tackling those challenges. Kenya, for example, already has 1,300km of pipelines running through that country. All of them are buried underground. It already uses modern methods of detection in the event of any possible leaks and they confirmed that it is cheaper and more environmentally friendly to transport petroleum using pipelines.

We also learnt that Mtwara Port in Tanzania has seen a surge of coal exports from Tanzania to the West.

It is imperative that we share experiences. As a region we have the challenges facing East Africa from a loud, persistent group of activists who are using environmentalism to advocate for the conservation of poverty in Africa. The 300 million East Africans contribute less than 0.2 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions yet the opposition to Eacop in Uganda, gas in Tanzania and Mozambique is disproportionately loud.

The region is one of the most affected by climate change. Why? On account of extreme poverty in East Africa. We don’t have the financial ability to cater for the vagaries of weather. The number of people in pre-Industrial Europe or people in China in the 1970s who died of hunger or flooding haven’t reduced substantially because Chinese weather has become better. Economic growth and poverty reduction actually go far in saving lives. It is not correct for 900 million Africans not to have access to electricity. We cannot continue to keep our resources in the ground to the detriment of our people. Conferences like EAPCE are, therefore, an important forum for investors, CSOs and governments to “think together”.

The need to unlock the investment opportunities in the region cannot be overstated. That means we must be a welcoming investment destination. The owners of capital must be able to deploy it here and grow it here. We must not be a burial ground for businesses. Similarly, we must encourage fair business practices and protect the weaker players in the chain of opportunities. Unfair terms for small and medium size businesses must be looked into. Unleashing of local content means the unleashing of SMEs.

Ultimately though, government, labour and business people must come together to solve the historic crisis of energy poverty on the African continent. We need to utilise these resources for the benefit of our people. We need to see more African refineries, refining African crude. We need pipelines. We need gas to power plants. We need to replace bio mass with liquefied petroleum gas. We need to electrify our homes, our schools and our hospitals. It was said at the conference that there is no point “breathing clean air in the dark”.  The fact is we are breathing terrible air in the dark. We are victims of multiple jeopardy. A harsh environment in harsh economies. This week former US President Donald Trump was asked how the American economy should grow and what America should do to kick-start its economy. He gave a similar answer to what NJ Ayuk said at EAPCE. The answer: “Drill, baby, drill.”

The writer is an advocate and partner at Kampala Associated Advocates