It is clear that there will be no restrictions on oil drilling in Uganda. Four of the ten National Parks and 8 of the 12 Wildlife Refuges are slated for oil exploration and drilling in the next few years. In Murchison Falls National Park, two exploratory wells were drilled in a RAMSAR site, an international designation for wetlands of global significance, at the delta where the Nile River enters Lake Albert. This delta area also contains the highest concentrations of other wildlife such as elephants and buffalo, breeding habitat for the rare shoebill stork, and important spawning areas for the fisheries that are critical to the people living around Lake Albert.
At a meeting between oil industry representatives and tourism and conservation stakeholders in Kampala recently, I asked Robert Kasande, the representative of the Petroleum Exploration and Production Department of the Government of Uganda if he was the one deciding where drilling would and would not happen. His response was, “As I see it, drilling will happen where there is oil. It is just a technical issue.” He stated that there are no areas that are too sensitive to accommodate oil development.
When I asked the Heritage Oil representative if there was a stopping mechanism, some way to halt production if the environmental impacts are greater than expected and are deemed unacceptable, he said that would be “up to Government.”
And, ultimately, that should be the case. However, it requires a lot of trust in the government – the same government that stands to gain billions of dollars from this oil. Uganda is regularly ranked as one of the more corrupt countries in the world by Transparency International (only 42 out of 180 countries assessed were seen as more corrupt than Uganda in the 2009 index) . Interestingly, Uganda is tied on the index with Nigeria, the poster-child for everything that can go wrong with oil production in developing countries.
In a case of the “fox guarding the hen house,” the government is responsible for monitoring the environmental impacts of oil exploration and production, and they feel there is no place for third-party, independent monitoring. Conservation groups have expressed concern regarding access to prospective drilling sites, which will certainly bring into question any biodiversity baselines the monitoring teams measure against in the future.
There is also some question of how much monitoring information is making it back to the oil companies. The Tullow Oil Production Manager showed a slide of the “green flaring” technology they are now using, which purportedly burns 100% of the crude oil that is being disposed of, reducing emissions to zero. However, in a later presentation by Edgar Buhanga from the Uganda Wildlife Authority, we saw a slide of the same site Tullow was referring to, where the surrounding vegetation had been sprayed and coated by raw crude oil that had leaked from this high-tech, “green” device.
Upon seeing this slide the Tullow representatives seemed visibly shocked. No matter how you look at it, this is disturbing. Either 1. The Tullow folks knew about this and were giving a greenwashed view of the practice or 2. They really were surprised by it and the feedback loop between the monitoring teams and the oil companies has broken down (or never existed in the first place).
The impacts on this park are only going to increase. Six more exploratory wells have already been approved for drilling in 2010 within the boundaries of Murchison Falls National Park, and three more are awaiting approval. Once this appraisal stage is finished, the real work begins, with untold “production wells” being drilled throughout the field. And this is just one of the twelve protected areas that already have or will soon be explored.
It will be important to watch Uganda closely in the next few years to make sure that the rights of both people and wildlife are protected. But I’m sure there is nothing to worry about. The fox is watching over us.
Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala