- BP is launching an offshore gas platform with a pipeline through the world’s largest cold deep-water coral reef off the coast of Senegal and Mauritania.
- The project’s environmental impact assessment has been described as “nonsense” by a group of marine biologists
- A group of scientists has been fighting for four years to change this. Their proposals are currently being studied.
DAKAR — Scientists warning of a “potential ecological disaster” from gas drilling off West Africa have won a small victory after convincing U.K. oil major BP to review the project’s impact assessment.
BP has already secured permission from the governments of Senegal and Mauritania to build offshore gas infrastructure for the Greater Tortue Ahmeyim (GTA) project, but scientists warned the activity would pierce the largest cold-water coral barrier in the world.
After four years of petitioning BP to amend the project, the group of 10 marine biologists has finally gotten the company to commit to ad review of its environmental and social impact assessment (ESIA).
“It was very long and tiring, but I’m glad we convinced BP to redo the analysis,” Sandra Kloff, an independent marine biologist based in Spain and spokesperson for the group, told Mongabay. Kloff has worked in the region for nearly 20 years, and in 2009 published a report on the impact of offshore extraction on the marine biology of Mauritania.
“But we’ll see what happens, we still don’t know which recommendation BP will listen to,” she said.
An impact assessment full of ‘nonsense’
It all began in 2018, when Senegal’s environment ministry called on the Netherlands Commission for Environmental Evaluation (CNEE), an environmental auditing organization, to conduct an independent review of the ESIA provided by BP. This original ESIA has been written by four different environmental consulting agencies.
Kloff was part of the CNEE expert panel. “I saw a lot of flaws in the ESIA so I decided to contact all the scientific experts I knew and sent them extracts from the ESIA,” she said. “They were flabbergasted.”
At more than 4,400 pages, “it was too voluminous,” she said, “and the biodiversity analysis was very badly done. Everything was misinterpreted. The worst part was the research for biodiversity in the deep sea. Many of the species in the BP study do not exist in the area and they don’t identify the different currents, even the easy ones. It was all nonsense.”
Aware of the advisory nature of the Dutch commission and the high probability that the project would go ahead regardless of what the independent study found, Kloff said she and nine other scientists got together and decided to write an open letter expressing their concern at the document’s lack of scientific basis. They sent it on Nov. 12, 2018, while Senegalese and Mauritanian authorities were still considering whether to approve the GTA project.
“We have strong evidence that the infrastructures coincide with vulnerable ecological habitats. Although our work is included in your reference list, you ignore its most critical contents. Therefore, your conclusions about expected impacts are fundamentally wrong, and must be corrected,” the letter said.
It outlined a long list of inaccuracies in the ESIA and the risks the project presented to biodiversity. It recommended that BP rewrite the ESIA and that the Senegalese and Mauritanian governments refrain from authorizing the project until the company had corrected it.
Threat to the world’s largest deep-water coral reef
According to BP, the GTA project is just one part of the approximately 13,500 square kilometres (8,389 square miles) of acreage held by BP and its partner in Mauritania and Senegal. Phase one is expected to produce 2.5 million metric tons of liquefied natural gas per year over the next 20 years or so. And this is only the first part of a three-phase project.
“We aim to contribute towards the conservation of the marine ecosystem in Mauritania and Senegal,” Marie Diop Toguyeni, BP’s head of communications and external affairs in Mauritania and Senegal, told Mongabay in response to inquiries about the project. “The GTA Phase 1 project’s Environment and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) was approved in 2018 by the governments and regulators of both Mauritania and Senegal, following a thorough review process in each country and intensive stakeholder engagements including through public consultations.”
According to BP, when this first phase of the project is complete, the gas will be produced from an ultra-deep-water subsea production system about 125 km (78 mi) offshore, then sent 80 km (50 mi) via a subsea pipeline to a floating production storage and offloading vessel (FPSO) for processing to remove water and other impurities. The gas will then travel through another 35 km (22 mi) of pipeline to a facility closer to the shore, where it will be liquefied and loaded onto ships for export.
However, this pipeline must cross through the world’s largest deep-water coral reef. Located off the coast of Mauritania, the reef is believed to be 200,000 years old and extends almost 600 km (370 mi) from Cape Timiris in southern Mauritania to the Senegalese border. Coral reefs are important habitats for fish reproduction and shelter a diversity of marine organisms: at least 150 bottom-dwelling species inhabit this reef, according to scientists. Coral reefs are also very productive carbon sinks and protect shorelines from the sea.
In Senegal, fish constitutes almost 70% of the animal protein people consume. It’s a precious resource in an area with rising food insecurity. In December 2022, UNICEF warned that more than 35 million people in West Africa are currently unable to meet their basic food and nutrition needs. The region is already facing the consequences of intensive fishing and global warming.
“This is a serious threat to the marine ecosystem, there are risks of pollution that will destroy the marine ecosystem in this region,” Aliou Ba, senior ocean campaign manager at Greenpeace, told Mongabay, referring to the GTA project. “The fishermen will find less fishing resources for their survival and this will also impact the food security in West and Central Africa, Senegal but also the non-coastal countries supplied by Senegal and Mauritania.”
A group of artisanal fishermen, represented among others by the Association des Petites Pirogues de Saint-Louis and the Syndicat National Autonome des Pêcheurs du Sénégal, have also expressed their worries about the project.
One of the scientist group’s major concerns about the EISA is that it fails to acknowledge the importance of these reefs, Kloff said. “In the whole impact study, they talk about these corals being relict reefs as if it wouldn’t matter if they disappear. But this is irrelevant because coral is alive in many places,” she said. “And even for the non-active parts, the reef can come back to life later on, which is why it is forbidden to destroy them in Europe, even fossil reefs.”
A project accepted despite negative opinions
The group of scientists, representing several specialities of marine biology, is not the only party expressing reservations about the validity of the impact assessment.
In December 2018, a few weeks after Kloff’s group published its open letter, CNEE submitted a report acknowledging the ESIA’s flaws: “The CNEE considers that the environmental information presented in the report and necessary to characterize the impacts is incomplete and/or has not been sufficiently exploited. This leads to an insufficient analysis of the marine and coastal environment and the socio-economic aspects of the sub-region as well as its vulnerability to project-related impacts.”
Yet without making any changes to the ESIA or to the Greater Tortue Ahmeyim project, BP obtained permission from the Mauritanian and Senegalese governments just a few days later to start drilling.
“We decided to validate the ESIA provided that our recommendations were taken into account, which they did a few weeks later,” Fatou Tabane, a member of the national technical validation committee in Senegal, told Mongabay. “BP have committed themselves before all the members of the National Technical Committee to resume all the modelling of the hazard study as soon as more precise oceanographic data and ecotoxicity of the chemicals that would be used, on local species, would be produced.”
However, the new modelling of the hazard study mentioned by Tabane is still awaiting funding, so nothing has been done, even as construction of phase one of the project proceeds.
One possible reason could be the money. In June 2019, the acquisition of the exploitation rights by BP was at the heart of a corruption scandal in Senegal revealed by the BBC. The oil major allegedly paid millions of dollars to the former concession holder, Petro-Tim, a company majority owned by the brother of Senegalese President Macky Sall and which had itself obtained the gas concession in an unknown waye. This family tie could have ensured Senegal’s agreement to the project despite the environmental concerns, Abdoul Mbaye, Senegal’s former prime minister, said in the BBC exposé, evoking “a conflict of interest.”
Phase one cost $4.5 billion. Phase two, scheduled for 2024-2025, is expected to cost at least as much.
With contracts and funds of this magnitude, ecological considerations can easily take a back seat, especially since, with the war in Ukraine, Europe can no longer get gas from Russia. That has left it scrambling elsewhere, including in Africa, and Senegal in particular, to meet its urgent need for fuel.
Protecting rather than polluting
Heated by the project’s progress despite the environmental and corruption concerns, Kloff went to the press. “It put pressure on them. In December 2019, they [BP representatives] came to see me in Spain and we explained our expectations. But they only came because we put pressure on them, they would never have come without that.”
According to Kloff, BP retained the NGOs Flora & Fauna International and EcoAfrik Foundation to conduct the review, and Kloff served as a member of the steering committee. She said she and the scientists’ group drafted a series of recommendations for ways to reduce the GTA project’s environmental risk that she submitted as part of the review process in 2022. BP has not yet responded to the recommendations, she said, and the original ESIA remains the official one.
Toguyeni, BP’s area communications head, did not follow through on a pledge to arrange an interview and answer Mongabay’s questions on that matter.
Among the scientist group’s recommendations was to not discharge production water into the sea but to reinject it into the gas field. “In every hydrocarbon reservoir, there is water. And in this water there are PAHs [polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons]. These are toxic substances that can accumulate in the food chain with all kinds of effects on the hormone balance of fishery resources and people. We have already seen this in Norway,” Kloff said.
As there are several sources for the same kind of pollution, such as bush fires, agriculture or mining on land, and natural gas and oil leaks, the group also asked for a baseline study of PAHs and other pollutants discharged into sea by the offshore oil and gas sector. This type of baseline exists in other countries, including Mauritania, according to Kloff. “For now there is no such reference in Senegal. So if there will be a build up of such pollutants in the future, there will be no way to prove it was the GTA project,” she said.
Another recommendation was to protect the pipeline crossing through cold-water coral habitat with rocks instead of burying it. In the region, bottom trawl fishing wreaks havoc on the seabed, especially on coral and other vulnerable fauna. To prevent this gear from damaging the pipeline and unleashing a gas condensate spill, BP had originally proposed to lay the pipeline in a trench, which would result in a sediment plume likely to smother coral living on nearby reefs. “Dropping rocks to protect the pipeline would be much less harmful. But more importantly, these rocks can form a physical barrier to protect reef from bottom trawl fisheries and could moreover provide a perfect surface for corals, sponges, snails, etc.” Kloff said.
They also recommended installing a radar with a scope of at least 12,000 nautical miles (22,200 km) that would inform fishing boats of areas where they can fish without damaging gas infrastructure or harming marine biodiversity.
“This is what Woodside [an Australian gas giant] had done and after 10 years of presence [in Mauritania], we could scientifically observe that the marine life had improved significantly. Their presence had a positive impact on biodiversity,” said Kloff, who worked for the Mauritanian government to study the ecological impact of the company’s activities.
“BP’s presence in this area could also help, but for that, they should not ignore our recommendations.”
Today, phase one of the GTA project is 80% complete, and yet the scientists still have no certainty as to its environmental future . “I really hope that they will take our comments into account because it could help them reduce their footprint on this precious habitat of international importance with species serving as critical carbon sinks and get them a step closer to the net zero target they have set for themselves for 2050,” Kloff said.
Banner image: coral at a depth of 1152 meters in the Oceanographer Canyon, where we find a habitat similar to that of Mauritania according to Kloff. Image courtesy of NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, 2013 Northeast U.S. Canyons Expedition via Wikimedia Commons