By Chris Lang
The Democratic Republic of Congo has announced that it will offer 27 oil exploration blocks and three gas blocks in an auction on 28 July 2022. Apart from the sheer insanity of drilling more oil in the face of a climate crisis, several of the blocks overlap the Cuvette Centrale peatlands. Disturbing the peatlands would release massive quantities of carbon dioxide.
In May 2022, DRC announced that it would auction 16 oil blocks – the latest announcement represents almost twice as many.
Simon Lewis, professor of global change science at University College London and the University of Leeds, recently wrote a Guest Essay in The New York Times under the headline “The Worst Place in the World to Drill for Oil Is Up for Auction”.
Lewis writes that,
The government of the Democratic Republic of Congo speculates that up to 16 billion barrels of oil may lie under the rainforest. In addition to accelerating the climate crisis, oil exploration here would be a pollution disaster for communities that depend on it and for wildlife. It could also become a major new source of civil unrest in an already unstable country. Given that the 1998-2003 Congo War and its aftermath killed more people than any conflict since World War II, everything possible should be done to avoid conflict in Congo.
Lewis points out that actually there may not be substantial oil deposits beneath the Congo forests. Even if there are, getting the oil from extremely remote areas to global markets may not be economically viable.
Even if the initial survey reveals no commercial-scale oil fields, the exploration for oil and gas will seriously damage the rainforests’ biodiversity. Oil exploration requires cutting thousands of kilometres of corridors to transport survey equipment. These corridors open up the forest to hunters and illegal loggers. “Once accessible and degraded,” Lewis writes, “the rainforests would most likely succumb to rampant deforestation, increasing carbon emissions.”
Rainforest Foundation UK, Rainforest Rescue, Greenpeace Africa, 350.org and other African civil society groups have launched a petition calling on DRC to stop the development of new oil fields. More than 86,000 people have signed on so far:
“We have the right to benefit from our natural wealth”, Didier Budimbu Ntubuanga, DRC’s hydrocarbons minister, told the Financial Times. “We are a free, sovereign nation, so we will exploit it.”
Ntubuanga could not have made a clearer statement about the utter failure of the UNFCCC over the past 30 years of climate negotiations to even discuss the urgent need to leave fossil fuels in the ground. The 2015 Paris Agreement doesn’t even mention fossil fuels.
Democratic Republic of Congo a “solution country”?
In November 2021, at the Glasgow UN climate meeting, the Central African Forest Initiative signed a new Letter of Intent with the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Under the deal, DRC could receive US$500 million by 2030.
“With its forests, water and mineral resources, the Democratic Republic of Congo is a genuine ‘Solution Country’ to the climate crisis,” DRC’s President Félix Tshisekedi said in Glasgow.
But the CAFI deal is a sham that promotes industrial logging and would actually allow a significant increase in deforestation, up to 667,867 hectares per year.
In response to questions from Bloomberg CAFI states that,
“This letter of intent commitment will begin with a comprehensive analysis of the extent to which mining, oil and gas titles overlap with, or impact on protected areas, high value forests and peatlands. Donors are working closely with the DRC government to ensure that the commitments outlined in the letter of intent are met.”
In December 2021, Ntubuanga told the Washington Post that preliminary studies commissioned by the Hydrocarbons Ministry state that the income from just two of the proposed oil blocks in peatland areas could be more than US$1.5 billion per month.
“Our country must move forward — we must find the money. Our large equatorial forest already compensates the world by helping it maintain atmospheric equilibrium — in that sense, the world is already in our debt and should be compensating us for that. But we cannot sacrifice the economy for the sake of the environment.”
Greenpeace Africa’s Irene Wabiwa Betoko comments that,
“The invitation to big oil companies to trash Congo’s most sensitive ecosystems and drill into the carbon bomb of peatlands is a historic error that must be scrapped immediately.”
Greenpeace Africa’s forest campaigners recently visited four of the oil blocks. Local communities “were all shocked about the prospective auction of their lands to oil companies,” Greenpeace writes.
Joe Eisen, Rainforest Foundation UK’s director told Climate Home that “The DR Congo badly needs development but of a kind that benefits both people and the planet.”
Virunga National Park
In 2014, an international outcry resulted in Soco International and Dominion Petroleum pulling out of oil exploration in Virunga National Park. French oil giant Total pulled out of oil exploration in Virunga the previous year.
Ntubuanga is dismissive of the campaign to keep the oil companies out of Virunga. ““A few years ago people shoved their noses into this, we saw actors like Ben Affleck and Leonardo di Caprio get on their high horse and ask for the project to come to a halt,” Ntubuanga told the Financial Times. “This time we will not stop.”
A 2014 Global Witness report, “Drillers in the Mist”, found that,
Soco and its contractors have made illicit payments, appear to have paid off armed rebels and benefited from fear and violence in eastern Congo as they sought access to Virunga for oil exploration. . . .
A Congolese anti-oil activist told British parliamentarians, during a visit to London in December 2014, that “every day brings the threat of death. The chief warden of Virunga was shot in April 2014, though not fatally, by unknown gunmen shortly after delivering a dossier on Soco’s activities to the public prosecutor in the provincial capital, while conservation activists received anonymous death threats by text message and phone call.
Greenpeace notes that at least nine of the oil and gas blocks overlap protected areas. Greenpeace has written to oil and gas companies warning of oil blocks overlapping peatlands and has set up a petition with almost 90,000 signatures.
In a statement, Greenpeace Africa’s Irene Wabiwa points out that,
“This auction not only makes a mockery of DRC’s posturing as a solution country for the climate crisis – it exposes Congolese people to corruption, violence, and poverty that inevitably come with the curse of oil, as well as more heat waves and less rains for all Africans.”
PHOTO Credit: Greenpeace.