Uganda: French and Chinese oil giants launch megaproject

Critics have warned of the damage to biodiversity and local rights, as well as the global climate. But Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni is hoping for an economic boom.

Two giant fossil fuel companies signed a deal on Tuesday to kick off a vast oil megaproject in Uganda despite criticism from environmentalist groups.

The China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) and the French firm TotalEnergies agreed to invest $10 billion (€8.9 billion) into a project to drill for oil in one of the world’s most biodiverse regions.

The agreement comes 16 years after the oil reserves were discovered at Lake Albert, the natural border region between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni welcomed the investment, but critics have said it will disrupt ecosystems and displace thousands of people.

What are the environmental concerns?

The project includes plans to drill for oil in several nature reserves. It is estimated that these reserves amount to 6.5 billion barrels of crude oil, of which some 1.4 billion are currently accessible.

In order to get the oil to market, the project will also include one of the longest pipelines in the world, bringing the fuel to the Tanzanian coast, over 1,400 kilometers (900 miles) away.

A report from last year published by the International Federation for Human Rights suggested that up to 12,000 people could lose their land rights.

The project could end up “displacing thousands of households, endangering water resources for millions of Ugandans and Tanzanians, devastating vulnerable ecosystems and pushing the world further into climate chaos,” campaign group’s regional director, Landry Ninteretse, said in a statement.

Environmental groups have also highlighted the lack of compatibility of the project with the targets of the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

Possible boom for Uganda’s poor

But strongman Museveni dismissed environmental concerns, saying: “Let the NGOs go and sleep in the bush if they want. … There is nothing we are hiding.”

The relatively poor landlocked central African country had an annual per capita income of less than $800 in 2019. Authorities hope that oil exports could help lift the nation into upper-middle-income status.

Museveni — who has led Uganda since 1986 — has previously suggested that the discovery of oil would help him remain in power.

Claims of corruption and slow bureaucratic processes, however, pushed the beginning of drilling back by years.

TotalEnergies CEO Patrick Pouyanne addressed environmental concerns during a ceremony in Kampala, saying that the company is “conscious of the sensitivities of the areas where we are going to work, in particular from an environmental point of view.”

“We are committed to leaving a positive environmental footprint,” he said.

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