Oil companies say they have the technology to ensure minimal or no damage to animals and their habitants inside Murchison Falls National Park.  PHOTO/FILE

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Uganda at crossroads as oil boom looms

What you need to know:

  • So, why do some anti-fossil fuel activists — local and international, continue to de-campaign Uganda’s oil project? Frederic Musisi writes.

The sunrise view over the expansive lush savannah plains of the Murchison Falls National Park is a great sight to behold. The resplendently picturesque view far over the towering feeding Nubian giraffes, is the epitome of natural beauty.

Droves of tourists from near and far come here for the idyllic breath-taking scenery. The park is the second most visited national park in the country, after Queen Elizabeth National Park.

The park to the northwest, together with the Bugungu and Karuma Wildlife Reserves, respectively, constitute the Murchison Falls Conservation Area covering an expanse of 3, 893 square kilometres.

The park, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society, a wildlife and wild places NGO, is home to 144 mammal species, 566 bird species, 51 reptiles, 28 amphibians, and more than 758 known plant species.

It is inside the park that River Nile—adjoins the Lake Albert Nile, the stretch known as the Albert Nile—as its waters roars upstream. It is also inside the park that is situated the idyllic Murchison falls, where the government in 2019 teased plans to construct a 360megawatts hdyro-electric dam at the adjacent Uhuru falls, a move that elicited widespread criticism.

Yet again, conservation aficionados and anti-fossil fuel activists have in the last months, since February when government and the joint venture partners—French TotalEnergies, China’s Cnooc, UNOC, and TPDC—announced Final Investment Decision for the Uganda oil project, kicked up a storm over ongoing construction of oil infrastructure inside the national park.

The activists have mounted a campaign on two fronts; de-campaigning the proposed East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP), which will transport Uganda’s waxy crude oil to the Indian Ocean coastal port of Tanga en-route to the international market, by urging potential financiers to walk away, and continuously panning oil activities in MFNP which they say is adversative to conversation efforts.

Moreso, the poor image of the government internationally—bad governance, clientele patronage politics, human rights violations, among others, has poured more gasoline towards the campaign against the $10b (Shs37 trillion) oil—Lake Albert Development—project. At the turn of the new millennium the British magazine, The Economist, caused a stir when it ran a cover story describing Africa as “The hopeless Continent” illustrating among other ills war, famine and disease, and decades of civil strife.

Eleven years later, The Economist and American Times, separately run cover stories titled “Africa Rising” painting a picture of optimism and the continent as the world’s next economic powerhouse on account of among others natural resource discoveries, tourism, among others, and with some of the fasted growing economies.

Yet still, how European and American media majorly covers Africa remains a subject of discussion by media scholars. The current divisive climate change debate, that has pitted world governments and multinational corporations, has lent credence to the discourse.

“There are many narratives about Africa that are not correct and I think this (on oil) is one of them,” said Mr Ernest Rubondo, the executive director of the Petroleum Authority of Uganda (PAU), the oil sector regulator.  “So, when you see these narratives that are not true, individually bear in mind they could as bad as this one about (Uganda’s) oil.”

A lot has been said and written about Uganda’s oil project since exploration and appraisal from around 2012 by the Anglo-Irish wildcatter, Tullow Oil, and Total EP [now TotalEnergies].

But since February 1 when the Final Investment Decision (FID) for the Uganda oil project was announced, international media has been awash with articles depicting immense contribution of greenhouse emissions, pollution, human rights violations—some stories half-true or out of context. There have also been truths to some accounts, albeit depicting the country as on the path of self-destruction.

As TotalEnergies, which operates the Tilenga oil project part of which lies within the park, embarks on the development phase—construction of infrastructure to pump commercial oil by the second quarter of 2025—some ask what is the worst that could happen, and how far can oil co-exist with conservation.

Some pundits and researchers have painted a grim picture, warning of among others oil spills and drawing parallels to the beleaguered Niger Delta, and adverse interruption to the eco-system—flora and fauna, which will deal a blow to the tourism sector, the highest foreign exchange earner of $1.6b (Shs5.6 trillion) between 2018 and 2019 before Covid-19 upended life as we know it.

Carbon (Co2) emissions from both drilling and EACOP is another strand that has been added to the equation, on backdrop of the recently released Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) report which detailed that climate crisis as unequivocally damning.

A group of 13 local NGOs in a statement on June 30 claimed that Uganda’s oil activities will produce over 34.3 million metric tonnes of carbon, equal to nine-coal fired power plants. The NGOs, however, did not detail how they arrived at their computation.

Since 2020, NGOs have been prodding international financing institutions to invoke their new fossil fuels financing policies that set out stringent conditions for lending to fossil fuel projects, including requiring TotalEnergies and government to commit to minimising or reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 

Some NGOs, including Ugandan ones have, however, been nudging financial institutions not to fund the project.

Stakes

Between 2005 and 2015, according to the ministry of Water and Environment’s Climate Change Department, Uganda’s CO2 emissions increased from 53 metric tonnes to 90 metric tonnes, the upsurge attributed to agriculture, forestry, and land usage.

Energy usage and production accounted for 10 percent of CO2, of which three quarters was attributed to the transport sector; heavily-polluted air spilled in the atmosphere from second-hand vehicle engines from Japan and China.

“Our energy per capital consumption is very low compared to other countries. The average consumption of oil per annum is 0.2 to a fifth of a barrel which is quite low,” Dr Joseph Kobusheshe, the director of environment, health, safety and security management at PAU, said.

He added: “Our emission of 10 percent attributed to energy sector is very low and as the country industrialises, you can imagine this will increase because we need to develop. Between 2005 and 2015, there was an increase of 37 metric tonnes even without oil activities.”

Dr Amis Mao, the executive director of the African Centre for Green Economy and don at the University of Cape Town, said these are complex issues.

“The issues have to be looked at from various point of views. Climate change is real and we are seeing extreme impacts because of co2 emissions in the atmosphere,” Dr Mao said. 

“Developing countries are not responsible for the tragedy we are facing and so the developed world has to take responsibility especially in helping poor ones like Uganda to adapt. But developing countries also need to undertake growth and that is the only way their economies can respond to some of these challenges. So broadly speaking these issues are interlocked,” he added.

The raging climate change debate has invigorated discussion on the Brandt line— the gap in financial wellbeing, between richer developed countries and poorer developing countries—commonly known as the North/South Divide.

Some pundits describe as unfair and bewildering the notion to completely halt new oil projects in the poorer south, in Africa and Latin America, for the sake of avoiding mistakes committed by north/developed countries during the 1960s to 1980s, which partly contributed to the current climate disaster manifested through rising water levels, erratic forest fires, erratic weather, and fast melting glacier.

Dr Kobusheshe said there has to be balance in terms of the global North cutting on their emissions as an allowance for the South to develop.

“There is no one size fits approach.  You have people sitting somewhere and making all suggestion without looking at the specific needs of the developing world and what is applicable. Our biggest problem now is energy poverty; our challenges and opportunities revolved around land use, agriculture, and that is where we need to focus,” he said.

The IPCC sixth assessment report published in February warned that the world is set to reach the 1.5ºC level within the next two decades and said that only the most drastic cuts in carbon emissions from now would help prevent an environmental disaster. 

Dr Mao opined that the energy transition—moving away from fossils like oil, biomass and coal which available science shows yield significant greenhouse gas emissions than wind and solar power, hydropower, and nuclear energy—debate has to be context specific.

“With the current crisis in Europe most countries previously opposed to fossils have now gone back to exploitation of their fossil projects. In Africa what’s the medium and long term solution that we need to undertake?” he asked. “What worries me so much about Uganda, if you look at the precedents and studies have been done on the track record of countries that have had oil is not a positive story; not because of climate, but other issues; lack of capacity to monitor, governance issues, and corruption.”

Dr Kobusheshe said whilst the fears, concerns, and environmental risks raised—real and perceived—are valid, there is more than meets the eye to the opposition against Uganda’s oil project.
“This is the oil industry. There is a level of geo-politics, economic aggression cannot be ruled out.

But there is also a lack of disinformation and misinformation spreading around,” he opined.
Inside the park, a narrow dirt path veers at Pakuba junction, off the main Tangi-Packwach road, into the wilderness where it snakes to the Job-RI five, one of the 10 well-pads inside park, and part of the Tilenga oil project which covers three production licences and straddling Nwoya and Buliisa districts.  The Tilenga project will produce about 230,000-barrel per day.

Construction works to establish support infrastructure to extract oil are in overdrive inside an encircled camp site. Atop any of the large soil mounds one cannot miss the sight of especially antelopes, warthogs, and buffalos.

The list of rules  includes no hooting, personal protective gear with high sensitive colours is forbidden; only grey camouflage is allowed, speed limit ranges between 10-20km per hour via the pathway to the camp, no overtaking, minimisation of light and noise, and car reversing is emphasised, tourists and animals have the right of way, and all offsite movements require guidance of a game ranger.

The order of hierarchy, TotalEnergies’ officials gamely emphasise, is environment, wildlife, tourism, and the oil project. So, what could possibly go wrong?

The company undertook the requisite Environmental, Social, and Impact Assessment (ESIA) studies for the project which was submitted to the National Environmental Management Authority (Nema) in June 2018, which was reviewed by the relevant government agencies, and followed by the mandatory public hearings to input comments from the public. This culminated in Nema issuing a certificate of clearance in April 2019.

A section of NGOs insist that the environmental and social management plans are inadequate, and proper guidelines were not followed.

The Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) compliance and monitoring warden in the park, Moses Dhabasadha, indicated that that the question of whether the oil project and tourism/conservation can exist has been overtaken by events.

“The key word is can they harmoniously co-exist?” he noted.

“We developed a toolkit we used during the last exploration and appraisal phase, and some tourists didn’t even know there were oil activities in the park which means somehow the two can co-exist.”

He added: “There is no conflict between the two, especially if there is flexibility between the actors on agreeing what needs to be done. Uganda has had oil for a while and we have had time to prepare for most of the things so we cannot say that anything caught us off-guard. So, for me it’s a matter of agreeing with flexibility.”

The Tilenga ESIA report details, and officials say, that most of the infrastructure inside the park will be buried and the area wholly restored to its pristine state. For instance, there will be a network of some 180km of buried pipeline inside the park and crossing the River Nile en-route to Buliisa where a Central Processing Facility (CPF) is being constructed. A CPF is where crude oil is separated from other impurities like oil, sand and water before being fed into EACOP or planned refinery.  

Carbon emission fears

There are lingering questions about Tilenga’s carbon legacy and how it fits for an operator who early last year changed name to TotalEnergies to capture the imagination of the transition to renewable energy. However, the company says its emissions will average around 13kgs of CO2 per barrel of oil produced, far below its average of 20kg per barrel.  

For EACOP officials have teased plans to install solar panels as part of the energy mix to heat the duct. Since production is yet to start this issue will be bookmarked for later discussion, but Dr Joseph Kobusheshe defended that all aspects—from project design to proposed technology—have been carefully looked at to ensure minimal impact.Perhaps the biggest test to both the company and government is how best will the area defined for oil operations be conserved and rehabilitated. On June 8, TotalEnergies launched the Tilenga biodiversity programme, an initiative for protecting and conserving biodiversity in and around the Tilenga area project area and mainly encompassing four main pillars; reducing human pressures and strengthening the ecological resilience of the park, implementing conservation and restoration measures for forests and their connectivity, protecting and maintaining the connectivity of habitats in the savannah and in the proximity of the Bugungu natural reserve, and working with the host community to manage and restore wetlands along the southern bank of Lake Albert through community-based management initiatives.

The Nema executive director, Mr Barirega Akankwasah, speaking at the launch of the biodiversity programme remarked that “these efforts put into this kind of programme should prove to the world, particularly at this time when activists have portrayed Uganda’s petroleum development efforts in negative light in international media, in consideration of climate change, that Uganda is committed to sustainable development.”  

TotalEnergies separately told this newspaper in an email that they are conscious of the fact 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 recognized best approach.” 


Uganda at crossroads as oil boom looms

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