Total E&P has secured the green light for its major oil project also known as Tilenga to proceed after 10 months of evaluations by Uganda’s environmental body.
Total E&P said the approval by the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) is a major step in Uganda’s journey to produce oil but conservationists are concerned that proper procedures were not followed, which could endanger the environment.
The Tilenga project is the main centre-piece of the oil projects that are supposed to bring into Uganda investments of over US$ 20b but its location at the heart of Murchison Falls National Park, one of Uganda’s leading tourist destinations and home to endangered species of animals, birds, insects and reptiles, has for long made conservationists nervous.
By issuing a certificate of approval for Tilenga’s Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) has intensified these fears.
NEMA’s approval was a result of a 10 month process that involved several field visits to the project area and public hearings to capture concerns of especially the affected communities.
“People expressed their views with regards to the project violating their cultural rights; the people also asked NEMA to ensure that management plans for noise, dust and water pollution are in place before any approval is done,” Dickens Kamugisha, the head of the Africa Institute for Energy Governance (AFIEGO) a Kampala-based non-profit told The Independent.
Kamugisha is also worried about the fact that the environmental body approved the project without taking into account the views of over 2000 people who turned up for the public hearings last year.
Kamugisha says civil society also took exception to the fact that the presiding officer for the two public hearings was Fred Kabagambe Kaliisa, the former Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development who now advises President Yoweri Museveni on the oil, gas and mining sector.
“The law clearly talks about the presiding officer not being an interested party in the project for which the public hearing has been called,” he said, “The approval has not been done in line with the concerns of the people.”
“We are planning to take NEMA to court for breach of the law because we feel that if the procedures have not been followed, we should challenge these institutions in the courts of law, otherwise, these public hearings are just a formality,” Kamugisha told The Independent on April 26.
The other longstanding concern has been over whether oil activities can go on without interrupting tourism activities in the Murchison Falls National Park.
Rossini Silveira, a petroleum engineer turned consultant who has over the last 25 years worked on projects in Australia, Nigeria, the U.S, Indonesia and the Middle East, says that implementing the Tilenga project in a sustainable manner will be hard.
He says that for some of the projects he worked on which were located in parks; the project managers took what he calls “conscientious decisions.” “Those plans need a lot of scrutiny by independent auditors by all means,” he told The Independent.
“Some of the roads in Murchison Falls National Park are already being widened and this is an obstruction to animals like elephants and the increase in traffic in the park could potentially increase the number of animal kills,” Silveira said, “We might have an oil project but we might not have tourism for a while,” Silveira said, referring to the fact that the oil project will probably last a maximum of 30 years.
But Dr. Akankwasah Barirega, the commissioner for wildlife conservation in the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities told The Independent that they have participated in the review of the Tilenga Project’s ESIA and they are “satisfied” with the management plans.
“Of course we know that it’s one thing to have the management plans on paper and another to follow through with the implementation of those plans,” Barirega told The Independent on April 26, “The impacts on the environment will always be there but if the mitigation mechanisms are followed then the two projects should co-exist.”
Edgar Buhanga, the deputy director, planning, monitoring and research at the Uganda Wildlife Authority says UWA is confident that the mitigation measures and the management plans that have been put in place will help the wildlife agency “pull through” during the production phase just like the conservation agency pulled through during the exploration phase.
“Remember back then the industry was relatively new and we had little or no experience,” he said.
“We have since developed specific tools and a specific atlas for the Murchison Falls National Park clearly identifying breeding grounds and routes for the animals.”
“We have mapped the oil wells and we have also done a baseline of what is in the game park and we want to compare it with what we will have after the restoration of the project sites.”
“We want to ensure that there are no spills and animal kills,” Buhanga told The Independent, “We want to minimize impact on tourism and the wildlife heritage in the park.”
Joint venture partners
In a statement released on April 23, the joint venture oil companies said NEMA’s approval marks a key milestone in the progress towards the development of Uganda’s oil resources. They noted that whereas the approval is legally necessary to allow the project go ahead, it is also an important requirement for the final investment decision (FID).
“Total and its partners Tullow and CNOOC are committed to being models of excellence whose mission is to operate in a safe and environmentally friendly manner for current and future generations,” the statement reads in part.
“We are fully committed to applying best practices to the development of the oil resources by avoiding potential negative impacts as our first priority, minimizing potential impacts and strictly adhering to policies and standards that meet international requirements such as the International Finance Corporation’s (IFC) performance standards (PS) of 2012, as well as national environmental laws and regulations.”
The joint venture partners said an environment and social management plan (ESMP) has been developed in order to support the development and implementation of the mitigation measures identified in the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA). They also pledged to continue the dialogue with all stakeholders including NEMA as the project moves into the next phases.
The Tilenga oil project constitutes License Areas 1 and 2 which are currently operated by Total E&P Uganda B.V and Tullow Uganda Operations Pty Ltd and is found in the north of Lake Albert closer to the Uganda-DR Congo border.
It includes; six oil fields, an industrial area, buried infield pipelines and supporting infrastructure, including camps most of which are within or near the ecologically fragile Murchison Falls National Park and the Nile Delta.
The impact assessment report describes the main characteristics of the project, the potential environmental and social consequences as well as the corresponding mitigation measures that will be implemented to avoid and minimize any potential negative impacts.
On top of hosting thousands of endangered species, Murchison Falls National Park also hosts a long stretch of the River Nile, which is shared by Uganda, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania, Burundi, South Sudan, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, DR Congo and Egypt.
The review process for the project’s environmental and social impact assessment started in June, last year, and included two public hearings held on 12th and 15th November, 2018 in Buliisa and Nwoya districts where the project facilities will be located.
Prior to the approval of the Tilenga project, NEMA officials say they held consultations with several stakeholders including UWA regarding interference with the animal corridors.
NEMA also held consultations with the Ramsar Secretariat and the Ramsar mission in October, 2018 to harmonize the findings with what was presented in the project’s environmental and social impact assessment.
In January this year, the NEMA board also conducted a weeklong inspection of the ecologically sensitive Albertine region with particular focus on areas where oil and gas operations are taking place.
The NEMA officials’ visit to the Albertine region was done to assess the impacts of oil and gas development activities on the environment in the Albertine Graben; review interventions and engage with district leaders and other stakeholders on matters relating to environment and natural resources management in the region.
The team visited the Tangi Camp, which was previously used during exploration by Tullow but was handed over to Total E&P. It is one of the Tilenga development project components, which Total E&P intends to expand to accommodate more people and equipment during the production phase since it will be used as a material supply base. But tourism experts say that when the camp is expanded, it will eat into an elephant corridor in one direction and railway land on the other.
The NEMA team also visited the proposed industrial area which comprises 29.57 sq km of land that will host a refinery, an international airport, and petro-chemical industries together with crude oil storage, logistics and warehousing.
The team also visited the Nyamasoga Waste Treatment Plant. The waste treatment and disposal facility in Hoima is the first engineered landfill in the country and was established to treat waste generated from the oil appraisal wells in the Albertine Graben, during the exploration phase.
It is perhaps this visit alongside other engagements with many more other stakeholders that convinced NEMA to approve the project that has thrilled the joint venture oil company partners.
NEMA has now embarked on receiving comments on the environmental and social impact assessment for the Kingfisher project in Hoima that was submitted by CNOOC Uganda Limited, the Chinese operator that is looking at developing oil production infrastructure along the southeastern side of Lake Albert.
Both the Tilenga and Kingfisher projects are estimated to cost US$ 8bn and will respectively have processing facilities with capacity of up to 190,000 and 40,000 barrels of oil per day.
These processing facilities are supposed to feed crude oil into the refinery and the 1,445km long export pipeline once production, which is now scheduled for 2022, starts.