Protecting the environment and biodiversity was regarded as a key element in the planning of the East African crude oil pipeline (EACOP), the longest heated crude oil pipeline in the world. However, an undercover visit to Uganda’s Lake Albert region shows that the contractors, French company TotalEnergies and state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), are harming biodiversity and livelihoods in the area.
As the sun sets, khaki-dressed tourists are driven around in open-topped safari cars, scouting for lions in the high savanna grass of Uganda’s biggest national park. Murchison Falls and the two neighboring wildlife reserves are one of the country’s major tourist attractions, home to 76 different mammal species and 451 birds.
After dark, the lights from hundreds of fishing boats on nearby Lake Albert can be seen glistening like a reflection of the starry sky. Bordering Congo, Kinshasa and Uganda, the lake is surrounded by small villages that depend on its rich supply of fish.
But this peaceful and timeless landscape is changing. Close to the safari cars in Uganda’s world-famous game reserve, new roads are being constructed to transport cranes and piles of steel tubes. Some of the fishing communities are now bordered by large construction sites. The new activity is being driven by oil extraction and a new pipeline, managed by the EACOP consortium, which is operated by Uganda, Tanzania, France’s TotalEnergies and China’s state-owned energy giant, CNOOC.
EACOP will cross seven forest reserves, two game reserves, two game-controlled areas and one open area that supports wildlife management. In total, the pipeline will cover 295 km of conserved and protected lands. It will impact nearly 2,000 square kilometers of protected wildlife habitats.
Several checkpoints stop unauthorized persons from getting close to restricted construction areas. This means it is difficult to make independent observations on how the project is impacting the environment and human settlements. To find out, Just Finance International and its Ugandan partner conducted two undercover visits in the Lake Albert region.
Throughout the visits we not only observed and documented heavy machinery constructing roads and preparing the pipeline inside the national park, but also how fishing communities and their livestock in Buhuka flats were trapped next to the construction site of an oil well near the Kingfisher oil field, which is operated by CNOOC. The Kingfisher field is next to the shore in the southern part of Lake Albert. From this field, a feeder pipeline will transport oil to the main pipeline.
The Kingfisher field is restricted for all visitors except residents of the fishing community and the staff constructing the oil pads. Our partners visited the area under cover and found that the oil pad was only 30 meters from the fishing community. This is contrary to the social and environmental safety standards for the project. Despite a growing dissatisfaction with their new neighbor, Just Finance International was told that the community members have been prevented by CNOOC from expressing their concerns on the project.
CNOOC started its construction work without relocating the community or establishing a safety buffer between the settlement and its works. This is exposing the community to noise and pollutants, including heavy metals from the extraction of the crude oil, according to Just Finance International’s partners.
Just Finance International’s partners also witnessed suspected water pollution at the shores of Lake Albert within the project construction sites. The community depends on the water for domestic use and for their livestock but according to our partners observations it is now tinted yellow due to the ongoing work.
The construction work have destroyed the cattle path that have been used for animals to cross from one grazing area to another. The livestock now roam around in the construction area because their fenced grazing areas were taken over. Just Finance International’s partners also took pictures of wild animals around the construction site.
The observations from our field trips in this sensitive environment are in sharp contrast to the original intentions of Kingfisher project as well as wide development of Uganda’s oil and gas activities EACOP.
During peak production, the Kingfisher project is expected to produce 40,000 barrels of oil per day that will be transported by EACOP pipeline. The pipeline project has been marketed as an eco-friendly investment that respects the environment, biodiversity and human rights. This was explicitly stated in the project’s planning documents and both the implementing companies, TotalEnergies and CNOOC, claim to have a high environmental standards.
According to the EACOP website, the project is committed to meeting the requirements of the International Finance Corporation’s Performance Standards on Biodiversity Conservation and Sustainable Management of Living Natural Resources. This requirement should be met through critical habitat assessments.
Consistent with the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment, CNOOC is also supposed to fence off its construction sites and ensure wild and domestic animals are excluded.
Biodiversity is regarded as a key component of Chinas Belt and Road Project, which EACOP and Kingfisher projects are part of. President Xi Jinping said: “The Belt and Road aims to promote green development. We may launch green infrastructure projects, make green investments, and provide green financing to protect the Earth which we all call home.”
Yet, the Environment and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) for the EACOP points out several negative impacts on biodiversity and the environment. These include, “loss, degradation or fragmentation of species’ habitat, population changes, disturbance or barrier effects”. This will add pressure to the natural environment, including animals such as the Rothchild’s giraffe, Lelwel hartebeest, elephant, lion, spotted hyena, Bohor reedbuck, Uganda kob and Denham’s bustard, according to the assessment.
Despite the highlighted negative impacts in the ESIA, it has been criticized for several weaknesses by civil society organizations claiming that the negative impact will be even bigger.
“We appreciate the developers’ vision and promise to protect and promote social and environmental aspects in the development of EACOP oil project. However, the current EACOP ESIA report does not provide evidence that the project will not destroy environment and livelihoods in Uganda”, the organization writes.
Meanwhile, tourists continues to cruise around the Murchison Falls wildlife reserve largely unaware of the impacts on the national park’s biodiversity.