East African Oil and Gas – the need to avoid environmental disaster

African Arguments by Thembi Mutch

East Africa is about to experience a hydrocarbon induced economic boom. However, the disconnect between what oil and petrol companies say is happening regarding the development of oil and gas resources, versus what international NGOs, academics and ecologists say is occurring is alarming. What is clear is that we have already done a great deal of damage, and appear to have learnt little.

Mangroves are part of East Africa;s valuable but fragile coastal infrastructure
Natural gas exploration in East Africa is being pursued without adequate scientific studies of vulnerable marine environments, including the 220 ‘red list’ species under threat located in the vast coastal and inland areas, and the newly discovered species of deep water marine life living in hydrothermal vents in the Indian ocean.
In Tanzania and Kenya the environmental management studies associated with the LAPSETT pipeline, the Mwambani port in Tanga Marine Park, and Lake Natron have largely been ignored.
Eighteen companies are involved in the 27 offshore coastal areas, in South Kenya, South Tanzania, and North Mozambique. The companies include: British Gas Group, Statoil (which is a 40 percent shareholder of Exxon) Royal Dutch Shell, Anadarko, Petrobras, Ophir, Origin Oil, Total, BP and Aminex. With only 500 oil wells drilled so far (compared to West and North Africa’s 35,000), the estimated volume of the gas reserves alone are 100 trillion cubic feet. Petroleum reserves are estimated at 600,000 barrels a day.
Off the record, several consultants involved in the oil and gas industry are willing to offer their opinions. All are aware that the oil industry is a serious player: $US 2.1 trillion is needed for investment in African oil and gas supply infrastructure to build refineries, roads, whole towns and ports between 2010-2035.
Consultants are contractually bound not to talk about what they are doing, and scared to ‘bite the hand that feeds them.’ As one said “…what we do know is that most of East Africa has no regulatory frameworks in place for oil and mineral resources exploitation. Or if they have, there is an abject lack of willpower to implement them. Selous in Tanzania, the Albertine Rift and Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda and Virunga National Park in Rwanda have all had Environmental Assessments or management plans which have not been adhered to or implemented. They sit on shelves, unread.”
Certainly in Mtwara, Mikindani and Kilwa (Southern Tanzania, close to the border of Mozambique) there are enough problems already without adding the massive uncertainties and risks that oil and gas exploration bring.
Firstly, environmental assessments are not in the public domain. Secondly the area is wracked with existing agricultural and water scarcity issues. Thirdly, unemployment and livelihoods are in a mess: the coastal fishing communities dynamite up to four times an hour in Mtwara bay, and the oil platform is being drilled right next door to a marine park, famous for sea horses and turtles. As Professor Marc Kochzius of Brussels University comments, “Compromising this natural capital of living resources by uncontrolled oil and gas exploitation that damages or destroys these ecosystems will have undesired and severe socio-economic consequences. If coastal habitats can no longer support subsistence fisheries, a large part of the coastal population will lose their main source of animal protein, since fishing is the only possibility for poor people to meet their requirements”.
Inland, in Uganda three British firms, Tullow, Tower and Dominion are all exploring the Albertine Rift, a lake area in which 2- 2.5 billion barrels of oil have already been discovered. In Mozambique, Uganda and Tanzania, oil and natural gas drilling will take place in national parks and UN World Heritage Sites. The governments are the first to privately admit that they can’t effectively manage the burgeoning development pressures. Dr Dembe, a senior Tanzanian National Parks Association official, says: “These challenges, between wildlife, resources and extraction are extremely challenging, they are not simple problems, adding resource extraction into this complicates it all, and yes, I am worried we do not have the capacity, the leadership, and the politicians to do this properly.”  Read more…

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