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Whose Development? TotalEnergies east Africa oil pipeline spurs controversy

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By David Whitehouse

A planned oil pipeline between Uganda and Tanzania is stirring passionate debate over development models for African energy resources.

The Lake Albert development includes the Tilenga and Kingfisher upstream oil projects in Uganda and the construction of the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) in Uganda and Tanzania. The Tilenga project, operated by TotalEnergies, and the Kingfisher project, operated by China’s China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), are expected to start output in 2025 and to reach peak production of 230,000 barrels per day.

Production from the oil fields in Uganda will be transported to the port of Tanga in Tanzania through the EACOP cross-border pipeline, in which TotalEnergies has a majority stake of 62%. The pipeline, construction of which is planned to start in 2023, will be the longest electrically-heated crude oil pipeline in the world.

The Dutch campaigning organisation BankTrack says that an estimated 34.3 million metric tonnes of carbon will be produced when the crude oil transported by EACOP at peak production is used – more than the current emissions of Uganda and Tanzania combined. In addition, BankTrack says, about 14,000 households in the two countries have or will lose land as a result of the project. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has said that EACOP will affect 2,000 square kilometres of protected areas and will fragment habitats for elephants, chimpanzees and other endangered animals.

Global banks such as BNP Paribas, Société Générale, HSBC, Credit Suisse, and JP Morgan have said they will not take part in financing the project, though Africa’s largest bank, South-Africa based Standard Bank, has yet to make a final decision. The world’s largest reinsurer Munich Re has said it will not underwrite the project, joining Hannover Re, Swiss Re, Axa, Allianz, Zurich, and SCOR.

The project shows “the need for the international community to support a different development path,” says Ryan Brightwell, head of research at BankTrack. Difficulty in finding backers has contributed to delays in the project, which is running between two and a half and three years behind original schedule, Brightwell says.

TotalEnergies “may have to look to the financiers with the lowest standards and the most relaxed approach to risk,” Brightwell says. The project, which has yet to reach financial close, can still be stopped, he argues. “Resistance to the project is only building.”

Total’s Response

EACOP project spokesman Cheick-Omar Diallo made a detailed response to the points raised by BankTrack’s research. “All partners are committed to implementing these projects in an exemplary manner, taking into consideration the environmental and biodiversity stakes, as well as the rights of the concerned communities, in accordance with the stringent performance standards of the International Finance Corporation (IFC),” Diallo said.

The environmental and social performance of EACOP is monitored by independent third-party experts, including Lender’s Independent Environment and Social Consultants (LESC). The main conclusion of their report, Diallo said, is that EACOP either meets or is on track to meet all eight IFC performance standards, and that there are no “red flag” items considered as no-go for financing.

The pipeline route was “defined to minimise its environmental impact and avoid sensitive areas as much as possible. When the pipeline route does cross designated protected areas, the right of way traverses mostly the very edges,” Diallo says.

The project partners “fully recognise the sensitive nature of the areas in which they are working. It is important to state that once constructed, the pipeline will be buried, and the right of way reinstated such that humans and animals can cross freely along its entire length,” Diallo says. Once in operation, there will be continuous monitoring including using a fibre optic cable along the length of the pipeline to detect any ground temperature changes or signs of intrusion, as well as remote and community monitoring, he adds.

The fibre optic cable monitoring means that “the risk of a major oil spill is mitigated to an acceptable level.” The pipeline does not cross either of the two lakes that are vital water resources at any point, Diallo says.

In terms of human rights, Diallo says that TotalEnergies is “not aware of any allegations by human rights and environmental defenders of threats or retaliation made by its subsidiary, contractors or employees in Uganda or Tanzania.”

Civil Society

Many African governments and energy companies are hostile to what they see as the imposition by the West of a switch to renewable energy while many of Africa’s fossil-fuel resources remain undeveloped, and with more than 600m Africans still lacking access to electricity.

At the same time, Africa is the continent most immediately affected by global warming. According to research from the Mo Ibrahim Foundation in July, the ten countries in the world which are most exposed to climate change are all in Africa, with Uganda among them. Both Uganda and Tanzania are in the top 10 of African countries affected by flooding since 2010. Glaciers on the Rwenzoris in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo are projected to disappear by 2030, and by 2040 on Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. In sub-Saharan Africa, nearly 40m may be pushed into extreme poverty by 2030 due to climate change, more than any other world region, the foundation says.

Government and corporate policies and statements are the easiest way for the West to access the “message from Africa,” as if there was such a simple thing. Local communities can struggle to make their voices heard. BankTrack is involved in campaigning against EACOP because it was approached by local civil-society groups concerned about the impact of the pipeline on the environment and human rights, Brightwell says. 

Uganda is “not a functioning democracy to say the least” and “there’s no reason to think that the economic benefits from the project will flow to the population,” he says. An example of an African country which has become rich through its oil remains elusive. Brightwell points to the example of Nigeria, where decades of exploiting oil resources have created a wealthy elite but failed to lift the population out of poverty. “Our starting point is the local community,” which sees few other avenues open to it, he says.  

TotalEnergies in May 2021 wrote to Uganda’s government to express concerns on issues of freedom of expression. Transparency International’s index of perceptions of corruption ranks Uganda at 144 out of 180 countries surveyed. The human rights organisation CIVICUS said in 2021 that defenders of human rights in Uganda are regularly assaulted by state and non-state personnel and intimidated by police based on fictitious accusations. “Debates on human rights, corruption in government, good governance and political succession are increasingly stifled,” CIVICUS said.

The Mo Ibrahim report found that in Uganda, 80% of people “agree” or “strongly agree” that “it is important for our government to take steps now to limit climate change in the future, even if it is expensive or causes some job losses or other harm to our economy.” Brightwell accepts that currently high prices for oil, gas, and coal make it much harder to stop such projects going ahead. The volatility of fossil prices due to factors such as the Russia-Ukraine war shows the need for a transition to renewable energy, in which policymakers will need to take the lead, he says. “Transition needs to happen. Market forces aren’t going to get us there.”

David Whitehouse is editor-at-large at The Africa Report in Paris.

Author: David Whitehouse

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