- The Central Africa Business Energy Forum proposes to build 6,500 kilometers (4,000 miles) of pipelines linking oil and gas resources across 11 countries in Central Africa.
- The forum says gas in particular should play a key role in developing the region’s economy.
- Seven countries have so far signed a memorandum of understanding, and a feasibility study for a first phase is expected by the end of 2023
- Environmentalists say the project is a mistake that will exacerbate the climate crisis and fail to benefit local populations.
More than 60% of people in Central Africa have no access to electricity. An ambitious proposal aims to change that with a network of pipelines, refineries and gas-fired power plants stretching across 11 countries in the region. But critics say the proposed Central African Pipeline System is a mistake.
Nathalie Lum, chairwoman of the Central Africa Business Energy Forum (CABEF), an organization that hosts an annual conference of oil and gas corporations and regional energy ministers, told Mongabay that CAPS will help make the Central Africa region an “energy poverty-free zone” by 2030.
“Access to reliable, affordable energy can help reduce poverty, attract investments, and create jobs, while also providing an important source of revenue for governments.” she said.
CABEF describes itself as a platform for developing cooperation between Central African countries which aims to use natural gas, a fossil fuel, to power homes and businesses as well as the mining industry.
However, a 2020 study by the International Finance Corporation, the private sector development arm of the World Bank Group, suggests that Africa’s onshore wind potential is enough to satisfy the entire continent’s current electricity demands 250 times over. The continent also has an abundance of solar energy, which is increasingly affordable to harness. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change, the unit cost of electricity from solar has declined by 85% over the past decade, while the cost of wind energy has declined by 55% over the same period. These sources of electricity continue to get cheaper, while fossil fuel electricity has become more expensive.
This points to renewable energies as being not only less polluting, but cheaper than fossil fuels.
Three pipelines, 11 countries
The idea for the Central African Pipeline System was born at CABEF’s 2021 conference, held in Brazzaville, in the Republic of Congo. The proposed network would stretch 6,500 kilometers (4,000 miles) across 11 countries, from Chad and the Central African Republic in the north, to Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi in the south. The African Petroleum Producers Organization (APPO) and representatives of seven countries signed a memorandum of understanding the following year.
The project’s promoters say a feasibility study for a first phase, covering Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon, Chad and the Central African Republic, will be completed by the end of this year.
The project is only at a preliminary stage, but it forms part of a determined argument across the continent that Africa needs to exploit its oil and especially gas reserves to develop.
But environmentalists warn that the use of fossil fuels cannot be a step toward the future.
“We know these things have failed,” said Dean Bhekumuzi Bhebhe, a member of Don’t Gas Africa, a civil society campaign against fossil fuel energy production. “This is a dangerous and short-sighted aspiration to pursue such projects. What we need to do is to deploy access to renewable energy.”
Bhebhe said oil and gas projects under development, such as the East African Crude Oil Pipeline in Uganda and Tanzania, or the Greater Tortue Ahmeyim gas project off the coast of Senegal and Mauritania, will not benefit the local populations.
“The promise of social development and social economic improvement is not credible,” he said. “When you look at countries who produce gas and fuel, most of those people’s communities are suffering. Sometimes a lot of people are displaced because of it and find themselves in a worse economic situation than before.”
Ahead of the annual U.N. climate summit last November in Egypt, Don’t Gas Africa responded to the arguments in favor of gas as a “transition fuel” with a report that underlined how exploiting natural gas will cause destruction of biodiversity, contaminate groundwater, and disrupt livelihoods by collapsing fisheries and agricultural yields. The report also stressed that gas is a fossil fuel, the burning of which contributes to accelerating global warming and climate change, which is already driving extreme weather events and mass displacements.
“We have to understand that we are in a climate emergency and by planning on fossil fuel energy future they do not provide a sustainable future for Africa,” Bhebhe said. “The continent has the ability to be a key stakeholder of the green global economy and not just a victim of the climate crisis. We can’t acknowledge fossil energy as a sustainable source even if it is for the benefit of Africans because we are in an ongoing climate emergency.”
Lum acknowledged that the promises of fossil fuel extraction have often been broken in the past. “The lack of strong governance and mismanagement have kept many countries from reaping the benefits of their natural resources.”
But she said CAPS will be different because of the support of international organizations like the petroleum producers’ association and the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), which she said “will help ensure revenues from the project are used for the public good.”
Fossil energy, a step further?
Historically, Africans have contributed the least to greenhouse gas emissions, but they will be among the most severely affected by global warming. According to the African Development Bank, the temperature increase rate on the African continent will exceed the global average rate, and this increase will be accompanied by an increase in the frequency and intensity of heavy rains. These changes will have a severe impact on the livelihoods of the majority of the population, who depend on rain-fed agriculture, according to the African Development Bank.
Governments around the world have pledged to reduce emissions, replacing hydrocarbons with renewable energies such as solar and wind power.
But Lum said Central Africa should pursue a mix of renewable and fossil fuels to develop the region. She said development is a higher priority for Central Africa than the fight against global warming, and governments in the region will defend the continued use of oil and gas.
”The CABEF aims to fight vigorously for the survival of the entire region by forming a bloc facing the West, which wants to force the countries concerned to abandon fossil fuels in order to implement their energy transition policies,” she told Mongabay. “It is therefore a question of making the member states of the Economic Community of Central African States as much as possible aware of the issues and challenges to be taken up by all so that the region can take advantage of its resources for development.”
Because of the war in Ukraine, European countries have turned to Africa to supply the gas they previously bought from Russia. However, that demand could fall away as quickly as it has risen, leaving African governments with excess production on their hands. More fundamentally, Don’t Gas Africa said in its report, “If decarbonisation continues to gather pace in Europe and Asia, the biggest prospective importers of African gas, then these assets will find themselves significantly devalued, leaving governments with large debt obligations on assets that are no longer viable.”
Analysis published by the African Climate Foundation draws the same conclusion. Gas exports will be profitable in the short term, or as long as the world continues along its current, destructive trajectory of fossil fuel consumption. But the ACF found that as the world curbs its fossil fuel use, and the price of renewables drops, export markets will shrink and African governments trying to use natural gas to power households and industry will find themselves locked into costly fossil fuel subsidies.
“There’s so much excitement over high prices and demand, but Europe’s plans remain to transition by 2030, and African countries are really just a stopgap for Russia at the moment,” Ellen Davies, a senior research adviser with the ACF, told Mongabay.
For the moment, no major multinationals appear to be involved in the CAPS project and no information seems to be forthcoming on how the promoters plan to implement it financially. CAPS promises to be a very expensive project, and it’s not clear that Central African governments can actually afford it.
Is natural gas the solution to Africa’s energy needs? New research says no.
Banner image : Promotional image of CAPS project. Courtesy of Nathalie Lum, chair of CABEF