Questions linger on Murchison falls safety plan as oil activities kick off

A grader at the site of the Jobi-Rii 5 well pad inside Murchison Falls National Park. JR 5 is one the 10 planned well pads in the park.  Photos/Frederic Musisi

What you need to know:

  • The development phase — construction of the required infrastructure to pump the nearly 1.4 billion barrels of Uganda’s recoverable oil reserves — is in overdrive across the Tilenga and Kingfisher development projects, respectively, which straddle the districts of Nwoya, Buliisa, Hoima and Kikuube.
  • The race against time is on to start commercial oil production in the last quarter of 2025 amid an outpouring of queries about what could possibly go wrong and how best can oil co-exist with conservation, writes Frederic Musisi.

Inside the cloistered boardrooms of the Petroleum Authority of Uganda (PAU), the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), and the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), debate is raging about the best conservation plan for the Murchison Falls National Park (MFNP) during and after the ongoing intensive machine-intensive development phase.
The Murchison, to the northeast, in whose precinct lies 10 well pads, is the largest and the second-most visited national park in the country, but is ecologically central for a number of globally and regionally threatened species.

Discussions revolve around strategies; biodiversity net gain, and biodiversity offsetting. The latter is a broader mitigation plan of action for achieving “not net loss”—according to the Washington DC-based NGO, Forest Trends, the goal for a development activity in which the impacts on biodiversity it causes are balanced or outweighed by measures taken to avoid and minimise the impacts, to restore affected areas and finally to offset the residual impacts, so that no loss remain—following prior employment of avoidance and minimisation measures.

The notable biodiversity offset in the country is the Kalagala offset that covers Kalagala and Itanda Nile bank and Namavundu central forest reserves, 40 kilometres north of Bujagali. The area was created to offset the large scale flooding into people’s homes and destroyed property as a result of construction of Bujagali dam.
Consequently, the World Bank—which backed the dam— and government signed an indemnity agreement for mitigating damages caused by the dam and categorically stated that the area set aside would not be flooded by another hydro-dam project. Except, it didn’t take long when the offset was impacted by construction of the 185MW Isimba dam upstream, triggering a boardroom war of words.

As such, in the case of Murchison Falls National Park, the French TotalEnergies EP and government would evaluate the extent of damage on land, flora and fauna, by the oil infrastructure, and gazette an area adjacent or elsewhere equivalent to what was affected for conservation purposes.
On the other hand, biodiversity net gain, supposes the goal of achieving a greater diversity of flora and fauna after a development activity has taken place than was present before. There are known tools such as the natural biodiversity metric to assess ‘biodiversity unit’ value of a site.

The plan
Inside sources told Daily Monitor that the French oil company is in favour of biodiversity net gain approach, not the offset ostensibly for cost cutting reasons, while PAU and other regulatory bodies insist on both. The discussions are winding.
Dr Joseph Kobushehe, the PAU director for environment, health, safety and security management, says discussions on the two conservation approaches are ongoing.
“The conversation on offset and net gain is one we have been having not just with TotalEnergies, but with other agencies such as UWA and NEMA. So there are four pillars here; wildlife, fisheries, wetlands, and forestry,” he says.

He adds: “Biodiversity offsets need to be understood that they stem from the fact that our first priority area is to avoid as much as possible. Where it is possible you minimise, restore and then have a stage where you can apply all mitigation measures available. For instance, if you are constructing a road you can avoid all sensitive areas by [re]routing the road appropriately, including reducing the width, having flyovers, etc, but in the end you get a road that reaches somewhere.”
While the ultimate goal of no net loss is aimed at boosting pressure between development and conservation by enabling economic gains to be achieved without attendant biodiversity losses, several studies indicate that biodiversity offsets represent a necessary component of a much broader mitigation strategy.

In an email to our inquiries, TotalEnergies EP maintained that it is working with the relevant agencies to elaborate the measures required to address the impacts to biodiversity in accordance with the mitigation hierarchy (avoid, minimize, restore, and offset). 
“The programme has been submitted and validated by NEMA. The Tilenga Biodiversity Program which was officially launched on 8th June 2022 is the start-up of the implementation phase,” the company said.

Last month, the Uganda subsidiary of the French oil giant launched an ambitious biodiversity programme for protecting and conserving biodiversity in and around conservation areas.
In addition, the company added, “it is widely recognised that the biodiversity of the Murchison-Semliki landscape is unique and does not exist in the same quantity and composition anywhere else in Uganda.  Targeting the same biodiversity when opportunities to achieve positive conservation outcomes exist is the recognised best approach.” In essence meaning that biodiversity offset is not an option, at least for now.

The site of Jobi-Rii 4 that is set to be excavated to install production infrastructure in the national park.

So what exactly is the best conservation approach?

The 2013 study done by Stockholm Environment Institute and others postulates that the relevance of biodiversity offsets to no net loss rests on several fundamental premises. First, offsets are rarely adequate for achieving no net loss of biodiversity alone. Second, some development effects may be too difficult or risky, or even impossible, to offset.
It is for this reason that conservationists remain opposed to oil activities in the park as it is risky business. For instance in the future likely event of a pipe burst or spillage of either oil or hazardous material into the park eco-system, how would such a loss to biodiversity be computed and compensated?

The UWA ESIA compliance manager, Mr Moses Dabasadha, separately told this newspaper that offset is to compensate for the ecological services that would be lost during operations while net gains is looking at how to make the environment better than before.
“Its common science that trees produce oxygen and at the same time suck out carbon dioxide. So when you cut a tree, you change the dynamics. If the tree was for medicinal purposes, the communities that were benefiting would be the losers. So how do you deal with this problem? You can either gazette another area and plant the same tree but bear in mind that by the time it grows to useful levels there are losses made. How do you compensate for that?” he says.

“For net gains, it is to TotalEnergies to decide on the best activities that can be undertaken to make the place better than they found it. Is it enough? Honestly, this is an ongoing discussion,” he adds.
Oil activities in the Murchison Falls National Park have had tongues wagging since 2012, but with the more machine intensive-development—engineering, procurement, and construction—phase on course, the stakes are higher.
For those in charge, the stakes couldn’t be much higher. TotalEnergies EP general manager Philippe Groueix says having to respond to every negative comment propagated has even made it more difficult.

“It takes a lot of time to answer all the questions to try to correct the image,” Mr Groueix affirms. “Because this is a flagship project we will continue balancing the voices,” he adds.
Inside the national park, Jobi-Rii (JR) five-well pad is nestled deep inside wild savannah— feeding grounds for carnivores and herbivores. Two days before a recent visit, workers on the site narrated that they were stunned when a lion grabbed a bolting Kob right inside the encircled campsite, sending gnawing chills among onlookers.
A well pad is a site of facilities and other infrastructure for oil and gas drilling. One or two or more oil wells can be plugged onto a single well pad.

Park activities
The JR 5, part of Exploration Area-1, east of Albert Nile, is one the 10 planned well pads inside the park.
To get here, a narrow dirt path veers at Pakuba junction, off Tangi-Packwach road, into the wilderness to the well pad working, cut off the greenery by an encircled camp site. Large mounds of loam soil are scattered all over the place, both inside and outside the camp.
The JR 5 well pad on which 16—production and injection—wells will be looped using a network of conductor pipes drilled together into the ground, alongside other oil fields, Ngiri, Gunya, Kigogole, Nsoga, and Kasamene, south of Lake Albert, form the Tilenga development project operated by TotalEnergies EP.

The project will produce about 230,000 barrels of oil per day to be fed into the proposed East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP), and the not-about-to materialise refinery project.
The cutting of the virgin earth over an undefined expanse at JR 5 and other proposed sites, has for long spells been subject of debate by anti-fossil fuel activists and conservations. The cutting, digging, and excavation of the Savannah means a dozen or so plant life is destroyed to pave way for oil activities.

“Across the park we will have the same kind of activity but the impact is 0.05, which is roughly 1 percent of the total landmass of the park,” said Mr Ken Opito, the officer responsible for safety and environment on site (RSES), in reference to the earth works at JR5.
“Essentially we have to adequately manage three things; the animals, the environment, and the eco-system,” he added. In late 2021 Portuguese MotaEngil won the tender for early civil works and site clearing, among others, after which the site will be handed over to China Petroleum & Chemical Corporation (Sinopec) to construct the well pad infrastructure.
Once the drilling and production infrastructure have been installed at JR5, both TotalEnergies EP and PAU officials maintain, most of the ground will be levelled and put back to how it was before.

Officials say only a small fraction of the area, which they did not define, will remain under direct use encircled in a camp while the rest of the infrastructure will be buried underground.
This rehabilitation, Mr Opito said, “is something I don’t have a visibility on right now” ostensibly given that the development phase is in early stages. “My main drive is to ensure we leave this place as pristine as we found it,” he added.

Chinese company Zhongyuan Petroleum Exploration Bureau (or ZPEB) Uganda Ltd was awarded the tender to design and construct the drilling rigs currently underway in China. The first rig is expected in the country by December.  There will be three drilling rigs inside the park.
From JR5 and the other nine well pads inside the park, a network of pipelines will be laid [and buried] along the narrow corridor crossing the River Nile en route to the Central Processing Facility (CPF) in Buliisa
A CPF is where oil will be stored first for stabilisation and treatment before being fed into either the proposed refinery or pipeline.

After all infrastructure has been installed, TotalEnergies EP’s director for health, safety and environment Simon Bryne maintained that what will remain visible will be the well pads encircled in a small working site.
“Everything else will be buried and the ground rehabilitated, and the major activities will be at the CPF in the south [in Buliisa],”Mr Bryne said. “Once the construction phase is done, there won’t be many people there inside the park]; it will be a small team while everything else will be automated. We want to minimise footprint as much as we can. If you look at everything we are doing, from the designs of the well pads, their location, etc, everything has been chosen to have the least impact,” he added.

The country is taking a lot of flak for oil activities in the national park before even the first oil drops while elsewhere, in Europe, US and Middle East, oil companies have increased production—without hubbub— to plug the supply deficit occasioned by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine
The environmental risks and concerns—real and perceived—notwithstanding, and debate on the best conservation approach, only time will tell whether and oil and conversation can harmoniously co-exist.


What they say
Joseph Kobushehe, the PAU director for environment: “Biodiversity offsets need to be understood that they stem from the fact that our first priority area is to avoid as much as possible. Where it is possible you minimise, restore and then have a stage where you can apply all mitigation measures available. 

Simon Bryne, TotalEnergies EP’s director for  environment: “Once the construction phase is done, there won’t be many people there inside the park]; it will be a small team while everything else will be automated. We want to minimise footprint as much as we can.»

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