Despite the global plunge in oil prices, a major pipeline that would carry oil 900 miles across East Africa is moving ahead. International experts warn that the $20 billion projects will displace thousands of small farmers and put key wildlife habitat and coastal waters at risk.
The East African Crude Oil Pipeline will stretch 900 miles from Lake Albert in western Uganda to the Tanzanian port of Tanga on the Indian Ocean. Map: Yale Environment 360 / Source: Total
Imagine a tropical version of the Alaskan oil pipeline. Only longer. And passing through critical elephant, lion, and chimpanzee habitats and 12 forest reserves, skirting Africa’s largest lake, and crossing more than 200 rivers and thousands of farms before reaching the Indian Ocean — where its version of the Exxon Valdez disaster would pour crude oil into some of Africa’s most biodiverse mangroves and coral reefs.
Such a project is ready for construction, to bring to the world oil from new oil fields in the heart of Africa.
It is the East African Crude Oil Pipeline.
The middle of a global pandemic, during which oil demand is in freefall and prices at rock bottom, might seem an odd moment to boost the world’s oil production.
But the petrochemicals industry is always looking for new reserves to replace those being exhausted. And two oil fields discovered on the shores of Lake Albert, which straddles the border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, are currently among the biggest and cheapest new reserves available. They contain an estimated 6 billion barrels, roughly half the size of Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay field.
Construction work has begun at the Kingfisher and Tilenga oil fields, where the China National Offshore Oil Corporation and French giant Total intend to sink 500 wells.
They have already spent an estimated $4 billion on infrastructure and made enemies among local communities by grabbing land and providing paltry compensation.
NGOs estimate the carbon footprint of the oil from the pipeline, once burned, will be rough that of Denmark, and thousands of farmers will lose their land.
WWF Uganda, in a 2017 report, warned that the pipeline “is likely to lead to significant disturbance, fragmentation and increased poaching within important biodiversity and natural habitats” populated by elephants, lions, and chimpanzees that are on the international Red List of threatened species.
It “has a greater environmental and social risk” than other pipelines planned in the region, said Paolo Tibaldeschi of WWF Norway, and author of the 2017 report. It is “longer, and crosses a hilly and seismic region near Lake Victoria, and several biodiversity habitats down to the coast,” he noted.
In Uganda, chimpanzee, hippopotamus, and crocodile populations will be at risk around Lake Albert, where the oil fields are. Total plans to sink 32 wells into the Tilenga oil field from within the Murchison Falls National Park, on the northeastern shore of the lake.
Elephants in Uganda’s Murchison Falls National Park, where the French oil giant Total plans to drill 32 wells. YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP via Getty Images
It is “not the ideal location of a multi-billion-dollar oil project,” says Romie Goedicke of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature in the Netherlands. Yet, she says, the Ugandan government and its partners are “seemingly unconcerned about the threat to biodiversity.”
Across the border in Tanzania, the pipeline will bisect the Biharamulo game reserve, which contains one of the world’s last five populations of ashy red colobus monkeys, as well as hippopotami, elephants, zebras and, tour companies claim, mountain gorillas. Further east, it will traverse 32 kilometers of the Wembere Steppe, a seasonally flooded grassland known for its birdlife.
Outside the reserves, WWF says, 510 square kilometers of elephant habitat is likely to be disrupted.
But pollution risks may be greatest around the pipeline’s ocean terminal on the Chongoleani peninsula near the Tanzanian port of Tanga, where tankers up to 300 meters long will be loaded.
“Transportation of oil will take place over mangrove and coral reef area,” where “intricate coastal environments make oil recovery and cleanup very difficult,” says WWF. Nearby, it points out, are two marine protected areas — the Pemba-Shimoni-Kisite reserve on the border with Kenya, and the Tanga Coelacanth marine park — which are noted for their coral reefs, dugongs, dolphins, and sea turtles.
The signs are not good. In Uganda, 7,000 people from 13 villages have already lost land in Hoima district, on the eastern shore of Lake Albert, to make way for infrastructure, including an airport to fly in equipment for the oil fields.
After a stuttering start, the two oil fields and the pipeline are reputedly ready to go. Uganda’s new energy minister, Mary Goretti Kitutu, is keen to push ahead and make the country sub-Saharan Africa’s fifth-biggest oil producer.
In January, the Tanzanian environment minister Mussa Azzan Zungu gave the pipeline an environmental certificate (!!)
Containers of crude oil at a test drilling site in the Kingfisher oil field on the shores of Lake Albert. YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP via Getty Images
The financing appears firm.
The project remains “very competitive,” one local newsletter, East African Business Week, reported in late April.
“While Total is following a global trend of drastically cutting expenses in light of Covid-19 pandemic and the collapse of oil demand and prices, the project’s economics make it one of the most likely to get FID in the near future.”
Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, (center), with Tanzania’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Augustine Mahiga (right), during a ceremony, to lay the foundation stone for the East African Crude Oil Pipeline in 2017. GAEL GRILHOT/AFP via Getty Images
None of which alters the bottom line for environmentalists: whatever the price, further development of fossil fuel reserves is incompatible with the Paris climate agreement. As a letter from NGOs to the African Development Bank in March put it, “the reserves in currently operating oil and gas fields alone, even with no coal, would take the world beyond 1.5 degrees C” of warming.
The last thing the world needs is this. For our planet, it is another step towards climate catastrophe.
If we get enough signatures, we’ll run a huge ad across France and turn the planned pipeline into a PR disaster for Total to get them to rethink. Let us now support the brave people who fight against it – before it is too late!
Friends of the Earth France, along with Survie and four Ugandan partners, have spent months investigating the situation on the ground, seeking to shed light on the violations committed by this criminal, multinational corporation.
The evidence is piling up against Total. Under the new French law on the corporate duty of vigilance, Friends of the Earth France and Survie are taking Total to court, and they need our support.
Petition 2: https://www.totalincourt.org/
And I mean…An environmental crime!!
France has a shameful colonial past when it comes to Africa, one that President Emmanuel Macron described as a ‘crime against humanity’.
And yet here we are in 2020 with a French oil firm desperately pushing through a major fossil fuel project so it can profit even more from the climate suffering of Africans.
Ultimately if the world breaches the 1.5°C goal, it will not be Africa’s fault.
Africa makes up 17% of the world’s population and has generated only 4% of global emissions. The fault will lie with the criminal politicians and companies of the global North. Instead of helping Africa develop along clean energy pathways, they are greedily shackling the continent to a dirty fossil fuel future with dire climate consequences for us all.
My best regards to all, Venus