On protected areas, poverty conservation

Elison Karuhanga

What you need to know:

  • We are being advised to stop even the most responsible projects on account of imaginary lions.    

Earlier this week, Buckingham Palace announced the death of Queen Elizabeth II. We start this column by sending condolences to the British royal family, King Charles and the people of the United Kingdom. Fare well Your Majesty.

In the same week, the UK got a new prime minister, Liz Truss. During the leadership campaign, Ms Truss repeatedly said boosting domestic energy supply would be part of her focus in seeking to bring down prices and in her first parliamentary appearance, she reiterated that the solution to the current high energy prices is extraction of more oil from the North Sea.

As one of the oldest producing hydrocarbon basins in the world, the North Sea has been a major contributor to European economies for 50 years. The North Sea is also one of the world’s most productive areas for fish and has a huge fishing community. The total biomass of all fish in the North Sea is estimated at approximately 10 million tonnes; 230 species of fish and 31 species of sea birds breeding along its coast, in addition to approximately 16 whale species in the North Sea. There are a number of endangered plants and animals in the North Sea. 

In spite of this, the decision to develop North Sea oil assets is not limited to the UK; this year, Norway issued 53 new licences to drill for oil in the North Sea. The need for energy security and cheaper energy prices cannot be disputed. 

Indeed, the German governing coalition that includes the Green Party is resorting to coal – the dirtiest fossil fuel – to power German industry. This coalition includes the German MP Kathrin Hennerberger who has been outspoken in her criticism against the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP).

Ironically, as the protected habitats of the North Sea experience more exploration, the Western press is still concerned with EACOP. The latest attack on EACOP is from National Geographic, in an article titled ‘Economic lifeline or climate peril’ where National Geographic informed its readers that on a map EACOP “resembles an elongated frying pan” and it will pass through “savannahs roamed by lions and elephants”.

Unless our friends at National Geographic have their own EACOP route which has lions and elephants, this is false. They join other prominent Western publications like African Business Review that alleged that EACOP will “tear through 230 rivers.” Clearly, there is an industry that is dedicated to manufacturing information about EACOP.

Ms Truss is right about the quick solution to the current global energy crisis, it is more oil production. Upstream fossil fuel development is vital to meeting the planet’s energy needs and pipelines are the accepted means of doing so. Al Jazeera recently reported that at least 2,381 oil and gas pipelines were operating worldwide across 162 countries. Of these, the USA has the longest network of pipelines - followed by Russia, Canada and China. The EACOP pipeline would cover a stretch of 1,433km – around 0.1 percent of the world’s pipeline network.

In addition, it is important to look at the available resources on oil and gas exploration in a holistic manner. In his award winning book, The Plundered Planet, Oxford scholar Paul Collier pointed out that the rich countries of the world occupy a quarter of the earth’s surface. He stated that the value of their known “subsoil assets” (oil, gas, coal and minerals) is $114,000 per square kilometre of land. 

Africa, which occupies another quarter of the earth’s surface, has only $23,000 worth of known subsoil assets. Why? Because Africa remains terribly unexplored. 

While the rich world is developing its resources under some of the world’s most ecologically protected areas, we are being advised to stop even the most responsible projects on account of imaginary lions. It is clear that we are dealing with an industry that is working hard to conserve poverty. The first industry we need to decommission and close, long before we close the oil industry, is this poverty conservation industry. 

Elison Karuhanga is an advocate and partner at Kampala Associated Advocates