Observer  /  Business  /  Conservation  /  Energy

Congo to Auction Land to Oil Companies: ‘Our Priority Is Not to Save the Planet’

Original publication by Ruth Maclean and Dionne Searcey for nytimes.com on 24 July 2022

Peatlands and rainforests in the Congo Basin protect the planet by storing carbon. Now, in a giant leap backward for the climate, they’re being auctioned off for drilling.

Peatlands in Équateur province in Congo last year.
Nanna Heitmann for The New York Times

DAKAR, Senegal — The Democratic Republic of Congo, home to one of the largest old-growth rainforests on earth, is auctioning off vast amounts of land in a push to become “the new destination for oil investments,” part of a global shift as the world retreats on fighting climate change in a scramble for fossil fuels.

The oil and gas blocks, which will be auctioned in late July, extend into Virunga National Park, the world’s most important gorilla sanctuary, as well as tropical peatlands that store vast amounts of carbon, keeping it out of the atmosphere and from contributing to global warming.

“If oil exploitation takes place in these areas, we must expect a global climate catastrophe, and we will all just have to watch helplessly,” said Irene Wabiwa, who oversees the Congo Basin forest campaign for Greenpeace in Kinshasa.

Congo’s about-face in allowing new oil drilling in environmentally sensitive areas comes eight months after its president, Félix Tshisekedi, stood alongside world leaders at the global climate summit in Glasgow and endorsed a 10-year agreement to protect its rainforest, part of the vast Congo Basin, which is second in size only to the Amazon.

The deal included international pledges of $500 million for Congo, one of the world’s poorest nations, over the first five years.

But since then, the world’s immediate priorities have shifted.

Forests in Équateur province in Congo last year.
Nanna Heitmann for The New York Times

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sent oil prices soaring and led to U.S. and British bans on Russian energy and, last week, a call to ration natural gas in Europe.

At the same time, Norway, a leading advocate of saving forests, is increasing oil production with plans for more offshore drilling. And President Biden, who pledged early in his term to wean the world from fossil fuels, traveled to Saudi Arabia recently where he raised the need for more oil production. Back home, Mr. Biden’s ambitious domestic climate agenda is largely doomed.

Congo has taken note of each of these global events, said Tosi Mpanu Mpanu, the nation’s lead representative on climate issues and an adviser to the minister of hydrocarbons.

Congo’s sole goal for the auction, he said, is to earn enough revenue to help the struggling nation finance programs to reduce poverty and generate badly needed economic growth.

“That’s our priority,” Mr. Mpanu said, in an interview last week. “Our priority is not to save the planet.”

Congo announced the auction in May, with a video posted on Twitter that showed a shining river nestled in a deep bed of lush rainforest. The video quickly cut to a close-up of a filling station pump, where yellowish gas gushed into an automobile tank. The American and French oil giants Chevron and TotalEnergies were tagged in the post.

A village, close to the peatlands, on the way to Mpeka, in Équateur province.
Nanna Heitmann for The New York Times

Environmental groups were outraged. Last week Congolese officials doubled down, expanding the number of blocks — vast parcels of land — up for grabs, from 16 to 30, comprising 27 oil and three gas blocks. TotalEnergies said it did not intend to bid, and Chevron did not respond to a request to comment. Other oil major producers also declined to comment.

The auction highlights a double standard that many political leaders across the African continent have called out: How can Western countries, which built their prosperity on fossil fuels that emit poisonous, planet-warming fumes, demand that Africa forgo their reserves of coal, oil and gas in order to protect everyone else?

And it raises a question asked by many communities whose very survival is based on cutting trees for sale or for cooking fires: If they protect carbon stocks of incalculable value to the whole world, what do they get in return?

“Maybe it’s time we get a level playing field and be compensated,” Mr. Mpanu said.

Many Congolese officials believe that after decades of colonialism and political mismanagement, their country’s needs should be prioritized against those of the world.

For President Tshisekedi, casting his nation as a bulwark against global warming has met with political realities. The country’s next presidential election is 18 months away, but the jostling has already begun with Mr. Tshisekedi running for another term. In 2018, he was declared the winner in a highly contested election. He cut a deal with his predecessor, the unpopular but still powerful Joseph Kabila, whom western officials have labeled corrupt. The pair’s arrangement fell apart in 2020, but some analysts caution that Mr. Kabila or his cronies could wind up on the ballot at a time when foreign investment is pouring into the country.

Just how much compensation is at stake for Congo is something that will not be known until seismic surveys are carried out — by itself a very destructive process, according to scientists.

In May, Didier Budimbu, Congo’s minister of hydrocarbons, said the country, which currently produces about 25,000 barrels of oil a day, had the potential to produce up to 1 million barrels. At current prices that’s the equivalent of $32 billion a year, more than half of Congo’s GDP.

Tropical peatlands store vast amounts of carbon.
Nanna Heitmann for The New York Times

Mr. Mpanu pointed to the Amazon as an example of how nations with natural resources must act if richer nations would not compensate them.

In 2007, Rafael Correa, Ecuador’s president at the time, set up a trust fund that the international community could finance to stop the country from exploring an oil block in the Yasuní National Park, one of the most biodiverse regions in the world. The goal was to raise around $3.6 billion. Years later, it had only raised $13 million. So in 2013, the government decided to allow oil exploration. Drilling began three years later.

“We’re not into threats,” Mr. Mpanu said, dismissing the notion that Congo’s auction was merely an attempt to scare countries into offering more financial assistance. “We have a very humble attitude. We have a sovereign right to go ahead.”

But scientists say going ahead could destroy precious rainforests and peatlands, which provide one of the last lines of defense for a planet struggling to limit rising temperatures.

Seismic surveys to identify oil deposits would entail long trails being cut through the rainforest and explosive charges being set off. Waste from the oil production process, which contains salt and heavy metals, could upset the salt balance of the entire Congo Basin ecosystem, as it has in the Amazon. Road construction, necessary for the oil industry, would open up vast areas of sparsely populated rainforest to human habitation, leading to increased logging.

A logging port on the Congo river in March.
Ashley Gilbertson for The New York Times

It would likely also drain and dehydrate peatlands, peat experts said, ultimately leading to their decomposition and the release of the carbon they trap.

If this happened, said Susan Page, a physical geography professor at the University of Leicester in Britain, the huge amount of carbon very rapidly released “could be a type of tipping point, effectively, for global climate.”

Mr. Mpanu asserted that drilling could be “surgical” and that companies could find a way to drill diagonally to avoid touching the peat. He insisted that any action would be in keeping with global climate commitments and would come after extensive environmental impact reviews and studies of how local populations would be affected.

A Greenpeace team recently consulted people living inside the proposed oil blocks and said inhabitants were opposed to drilling and would launch protests, according to Ms. Wabiwa.

Rather than alleviating poverty, she said, the sale of oil blocks would make a lot of money for a few people.

Mr. Budimbu, Congo’s hydrocarbons minister, has consulted some of Africa’s biggest oil producers, like Angola, Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea, “so that the D.R.C. can take the same path,” according to a recent release on the ministry’s website.

But if Congo were to follow in their footsteps, it could mean a fate some call the “resource curse,” in which citizens don’t benefit from their country’s natural wealth and economic development remains anemic. In Nigeria, oil is the mainstay of the economy but its production has also led to devastating spills and widening inequality. In Equatorial Guinea, the majority of the population lives below the poverty line and reaps no benefit from the country’s vast oil wealth.

The decision to allow more exploration was carefully considered, government officials said, though it appeared to be the subject of some internal debate.

Miners hauled bags of cobalt in southeast Congo, last year.
Ashley Gilbertson for The New York Times

In March, Ève Bazaiba, Congo’s minister of environment, told The New York Times that officials were mulling going ahead. “Should we protect peatland because it’s a carbon sink or should we dig for oil for our economy?” she said.

Last week she indicated a willingness to back down on the auction.

“If we have an alternative to the oil exploitation, we’ll keep them,” she said, speaking of the peatland.

But Mr. Mpanu said Congo already has paid its climate dues. It allows the mining of minerals and metals such as cobalt and lithium that are key to the renewable energy industry and it plans to develop hydropower.

“We are part of the solution, but the solution also includes us making use of our oil resources,” he said.

He said the nation could seek to protect other land to offset what would be lost by drilling in places like Virunga, and noted that it would be up to oil companies to decide whether they would drill inside the park boundaries.

“If we lose 10 hectares we could now protect 20,” he said. “Sure, it won’t have the same biodiversity and fauna, but the country has that right.”

Asked what oil company, in an era where consumer awareness is higher than ever, would consider drilling in a protected gorilla habitat, Mr. Mpanu did not hesitate.

“It is what it is,” he said. “We just have to see how much people value that resource.”

Virunga National Park, the oldest in Africa, in 2014.
Uriel Sinai for The New York Times

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