A huge crude oil pipeline project in East Africa has come under renewed fire from environmental campaigners, with prominent activists and researchers warning that the pipeline is not only incompatible with climate goals, but will ruin the lives of thousands of people while further endangering rare animal species.
Ugandan climate activist and Time magazine cover star Vanessa Nakate joined an online event Wednesday to call attention to the risks posed by the 900-mile-long East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP).
“It is evident that there is no future in the fossil fuel industry,” Nakate told the Africa’s People’s AGM on EACOP. “In regards to the East African Crude Oil Pipeline, many people think this is a way of [creating] jobs and economic development. But we know the impacts on our food. We know the impacts on our water. We know the impacts on our livelihood.”
Speaking alongside civil society campaigners and personalities, Nakate stressed the proximity of the under-construction pipeline to Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest lake, which provides water and food to tens of millions.
“Any kind of oil spill would harm about 40 million people … [pollute] our soils and our land. It would affect the food access of so many people, when it’s evident that the climate crisis is already affecting so many people not only in Uganda, but the African continent.”
On its completion in 2024, EACOP will carry an estimated 70 million barrels of oil per year from oilfields in Uganda to the coast in Tanzania, from where it will be shipped around the world. When burned, the oil will release up to 34 million tons of CO2 emissions a year.
With the UN’s major climate report warning last week that global carbon emissions must peak before 2025 to have any chance of limiting global warming to within 1.5 degrees Celsius or face accelerating climate breakdown, climate campaigners are stepping up pressure to prevent the pipeline from going ahead.
“The IEA [International Energy Agency] has made it very clear that if we want to [limit global warming] to 1.5 degrees Celsius, then we cannot have any new fossil fuel development,” Nakate said. “But even at 1.2 degrees, we already seeing the effects of the climate crisis on the African continent … the latest IPCC report projects that 700 million people in Africa will be displaced because of drought.”
Responding to a question from Forbes Sustainability, Nakate added: “The climate crisis itself is deeply rooted in colonialism. We also know that those who are least responsible are the ones who are most impacted by the crisis. The African continent historically is responsible for less than 4% of global emissions, and yet we are seeing how so many Africans are suffering some of the worst impacts of climate change. So indeed, colonialism comes through projects like EACOP.”
Fossil Fuel Finance
Nakate joined campaigners in calling on major banks and insurance firms not to back EACOP. At the time of writing, 15 banks and insurers, including HSBC, BNP Paribas and Swiss Re, had said they will not invest in the project. That leaves dozens of the world’s most powerful financial institutions to make such a declaration. With U.S. insurer Liberty Mutual to hold its annual general meeting Wednesday, and banks such as JPMorgan Chase having made pledges to take their businesses to net zero emissions by 2050, campaigners hope the renewed pressure will tip the balance of power against the pipeline.
EACOP is being built by French oil giant TotalEnergies and China’s National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), with the financial backing of Standard Bank of South Africa, SMBC of Japan, and China’s ICBC. The project’s website boasts that the pipeline will be “the longest electrically heated pipeline in the world,” and that it will lead to a 60% increase in foreign direct investment for Uganda and Tanzania.
But in addition to its climate impacts, campaigners say EACOP is a direct threat to both local people and to the natural world. As many as 100,000 people across Uganda and Tanzania could lose their homes and land, and thousands of families are to be forcibly relocated to make way for the pipeline, pulling communities apart.
Furthermore, EACOP looks set to threaten the habitats of numerous endangered animal species, including elephants and chimpanzees. Veteran American climate campaigner Bill McKibben has said “the proposed route [of EACOP] looks almost as if it were drawn to endanger as many animals as possible.”
“The proposed East African Crude Oil Pipeline is an 18th century project, and one which is not fit for either Uganda or the world today,” said Prince Papa, Africa program coordinator for the Laudato Si’ Movement, a Catholic organization dedicated to climate and ecological justice. “The project is already forcefully displacing local communities, endangering wildlife and protected biodiversity areas, and tipping the world closer to climate catastrophe.”
“Uganda and East Africa can be the climate leaders that the world needs,” Papa told Forbes Sustainability. “We have the potential to lead on climate by pioneering a clean energy economy and modeling a prosperous, healthy future free of fossil fuels.”
EACOP enjoys the backing of Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni and Tanzania’s President Samia Suluhu Hassan, who believe the oil firms’ claims that EACOP will be good for their nations’ economies.
That government support has led to fierce repression of any protests against the pipeline. Diana Nabiruma, senior communications officer for the Africa Institute for Energy Governance (AFIEGO), an NGO, said the Ugandan government has responded to protests against EACOP by attempting to shut down campaign groups and other civil society organizations. In October, Ugandan police arrested AFIEGO and other NGO staff for “operating without permits,” which many observers have interpreted as an attempt to silence any opposition to the pipeline. “We were targeted because of our campaigning against oil risks and deforestation in the country,” Nabiruma said.
Yet despite the risks the project poses regionally and internationally, some key environmental bodies have opted not to stand with the #stopEACOP campaigners.
Prince Papa shared with Forbes Sustainability letters between Laudato Si’ and the influential International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a governing body of protected sites, in which the charity requested the union to take a stand against EACOP on the basis that the pipeline would “pose severe threats to environmental conservation, biodiversity protection and climate change mitigation efforts.” In its responses, IUCN appeared to equivocate, stating:
“IUCN recognises that extractives [sic] industries can be significant contributors to the global economy, and this makes them an influential force in shaping how global conservation and development goals are attained. Based on these considerations, the Secretariat has developed the IUCN Extractives Sector Operational Framework, which guides the Secretariat’s engagement on these issues.”
In short, the body resisted calls to oppose the pipeline based on the premise that any risks that it brings are balanced by its economic rewards.
But campaigners question EACOP’s purported economic benefits. For one thing, they say, reams of research are now available to support the “resource curse” hypothesis, the paradox that natural resource abundance appears to have a net negative impact on a country’s GDP growth.
Who Really Benefits?
“The proposition that oil enriches any nation is a total falsehood,” said Nigerian architect, activist and poet Nnimmo Bassey, speaking at the AGM about the experiences of his country in dealing with oil firms such as Shell. “Oil enriches the oil corporations … and they work in tandem with governments, who are unable to regulate the oil sector.”
Noting that life expectancy in Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta is now just 41 years, Bassey went on: “Nigeria has been extracting oil for 64 years, but I think the only thing oil has brought to Nigeria … is massive depravation. It doesn’t improve the life of the people; it doesn’t improve the economy; people don’t have access to electricity or clean water.”
“Africa has always been attractive for exploitation,” Bassey added. “We are so accessible … and with Europe looking for ways to shift away from depending on Russian oil and gas, you’re going to find a lot more interest coming to Africa.”
In the view of Christopher Opio, program and communication officer for Oil Refinery Residents Association, a Ugandan human rights group, weak governments expose their populations to the predations of such corporations.
“There is too much corruption in our country coupled with poor governance,” Opio told me. “The oil money will just worsen the corruption and vice, so may not really change our lives.”
Furthermore, he added, the Ugandan government had borrowed a large sum of money to develop its oil sector, negating a large proportion of the revenues from the pipeline.
“The oil money will be used to service the debts,” he said.
But with overwhelming government control of local media, many Ugandans and Tanzanians are unaware of the drawbacks and risks posed by EACOP.
Tonny Kukeera, a Ugandan researcher at the University of Oxford’s Smith School of Enterprise and Environment, highlighted the issue of awareness.
“When you read the local newspapers or watch local TV stations across East Africa, the stories that receive more media time are those which evangelise the EACOP oil pipeline as an economic savior, especially for Uganda,” Kukeera told me. “[But] whereas organisations such as the IUCN claim that the ‘extractive sector will continue to make a significant contribution to the global economy,’ it is crucial to examine the context. The right question for East Africa to ask would be: at what cost and for how long?”
He continued: “IUCN should recognise that such assertions offer credence to the activities of the fossil industry—mainly the private companies such as TotalEnergies, whose dealings and communications haven’t been transparent—while implicitly turning a blind eye to the communities in the region who suffer the biggest consequences.”
Kukeera highlighted the potentially devastating local impact that the pipeline—and the threat of a rupture—could have on the area’s communities, and the large and growing tourism industry, which employs an estimated 500,000 people in the region.
“On the one hand, developing countries need money to build their economies and reduce inequality. On the other hand, these same countries are the ones most devastated by the effects of climate change,” he said. “Oil firms and the extractive industry may come as saviors, but it primarily serves their interests.”
But Hilda Nakabuye, of Fridays For Future Uganda, said that even if EACOP’s claimed economic benefits did materialize, they wouldn’t offset its harms.
“The EACOP project poses grave risks to the world’s climate,” Nakabuye said. “In my home village, people are already displaced, their incomes and livelihoods affected, unacceptable risks to water resources, biodiversity and natural habitats.”
“At a time where climate catastrophes are worsening, unlocking a new source of carbon emissions that will either prove financially unviable or produce unacceptable climate harm puts millions of lives at stake and is a mockery for the existence of generations to come.”
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