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Oil exploration at odds with peatland protection in the Congo Basin

  • A new report details an investigation led by the investigative NGO Global Witness into the exploration for oil in the world’s largest peatlands, found in Central Africa’s Congo Basin.
  • The Republic of Congo and the company licensed to search for oil in a block containing more than 6,000 square kilometers (2,300 square miles) of peatlands argue for the right to extract the oil for the benefit of the country, and they say they are following strict environmental guidelines.
  • But Global Witness found that the environmental impact assessment for the block is dated July 2013, nearly a year before scientists discovered the existence of the peatlands.
  • The authors also point out that an agreement worth $65 million to protect the peatlands and the Republic of Congo’s other tropical forests doesn’t require that the carbon-rich peatlands be legally protected until 2025.

The peatlands of the Congo Basin are home to more than just massive carbon stocks and some of our closest — and most threatened — relatives in the animal kingdom, including gorillas and chimpanzees. They may also blanket a giant cauldron of oil, which is tempting investors and governments to develop Central Africa’s Cuvette Centrale, comprising these boggy forests.

A recent report, published Feb. 28 and led by the investigative NGO Global Witness, suggests that the surging interest in the Cuvette Centrale’s potential oil reserves is overshadowing efforts to keep the ecosystem intact. The Global Witness team and its partners in the investigation, the German newspaper Der Spiegel and the French investigative journal Mediapart, turned up evidence of insufficient environmental impact assessments and unverified claims about the amount of oil the Cuvette contains.

The team focused on the Ngoki oil block, which holds more than 6,000 square kilometers (2,300 square miles) of peatland and for which the Republic of Congo government has issued an exploration permit to the domestic private company Petroleum Exploration and Production Africa (PEPA).

The peatlands of the Congo Basin support a variety of species, including chimpanzees. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Amid these concerns about the environmental impacts, the researchers also questioned the links between the family of the country’s president, Denis Sassou-Nguesso, and Claude Wilfrid Etoka, a “major shareholder” in PEPA. That connection presents a conflict of interest, the team wrote.

Etoka told Global Witness that he had friendships with members of the president’s family, but that they did not extend to business arrangements.

PEPA responded to the report in a statement published online. The company said it conducted studies before placing its first well in the Ngoki block, “all of which concluded that there was a limited impact from the exploration for and then exploitation of hydrocarbons from the site.”

A map of the Ngoki oil block showing the location of the peatlands and the oil exploration and drilling activities underway. Image courtesy of Global Witness with data from CongoPeat.

For its part, the government of the Republic of Congo asserted its right to benefit from the extraction of the oil the peatlands may contain.

“Thus, while preserving the peatlands, a world ecological heritage site, the country, eager to promote its legitimate right to development, is committed to carrying out ongoing search and exploration for oil in full compliance with the strictest environmental rules,” Thierry Moungalla, the country’s communications minister, said on Twitter in response to the Global Witness report.

Moungalla also questioned the reliability of a Global Witness source who said that the peatlands might hold a smaller amount of oil than the government claims. (Other observers have wondered openly as to whether opening up drilling in the Cuvette Centrale could truly triple the country’s production to nearly 1 million barrels a day.)

The rainforest of the Congo Basin. Image by Corinne Staley via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Colin Robertson, one of the report’s authors and a forests campaigner with Global Witness, said that the environmental impact assessment (EIA) for the Ngoki block does not explicitly address the possible damage that development of infrastructure for oil extraction could do. He and his colleagues also note that the EIA is dated July 2013, nearly a year before scientists’ discovery of the peatlands in 2014. Full maps of their extent, which, at roughly 145,500 km2 (56,200 mi2), cover an area about the size of Nepal, weren’t published in the scientific literature until 2017. Scientists figure they also hold 30 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide.

In September 2019, the Republic of Congo signed a pact worth $65 million to protect its forests through the partnership known as the Central African Forest Initiative, or CAFI. The agreement references the “minimization of direct and indirect impacts of mining and hydrocarbon activities on carbon stocks and forest and peatlands biodiversity.” And while the deal does mention securing the peatlands with a “special legal status” by December 2025, it has scant details on how to accomplish that, Global Witness said.

A family of western lowland gorillas looking for minerals in the mud, pictured here in Cameroon. Image by Gregoire Dubois via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

In 2018, the Republic of Congo tendered several blocks of land in the far north of the country for oil exploration, one of which overlapped with Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park. The park is part of a multinational UNESCO World Heritage site known for the verdant forests and vibrant array of species it supports.

“To us, that seems like a contradiction that they can go ahead with oil drilling but at the same time promise to protect the area,” Robertson said in an interview. He added that a lot could happen in five years.

“Obviously, between now and 2025, if the area’s opened up to oil drilling,” Robertson said, “a huge amount of damage could be done before the peatlands have been given any protected status.”

Banner image of the Congo Basin rainforest by Corinne Staley via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0). 

John Cannon is Mongabay’s staff features writer. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon

Citation:

Dargie, G. C., Lewis, S. L., Lawson, I. T., Mitchard, E. T. A., Page, S. E., Bocko, Y. E., & Ifo, S. A. (2017). Age, extent and carbon storage of the central Congo Basin peatland complex. Nature, 542, 86. doi:10.1038/nature21048

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