The oil giants drilling among the giraffes in Uganda

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In the middle of the savannah grassland, a warthog looks on as a bulldozer levels the red earth. The noise of the road-building equipment jars across the calm of the morning, a time when animals that graze at dawn retreat from the rising sun.

As one of the world’s most famous game reserves, Murchison Falls National Park is home to some of the largest populations of elephants, giraffes, lions and leopards anywhere on the planet. Chief warden Edison Nuwamanya rattles off the numbers by heart: 2,700 elephants, 15,800 buffalo, 1,950 Rothschild’s giraffes and more than 150,000 kobs, a type of antelope. Decades of hard work and investment have helped to restore these populations after they were decimated by poaching.

But life here is about to encounter a new threat, as the $10bn Lake Albert oil project run by French oil company TotalEnergies and Chinese state oil developer Cnooc roars into life, after a final investment decision was reached earlier this year. A key part of it, the Tilenga oilfield, includes 10 well pads and a feeder pipeline inside the national park, bringing industrial activity on a scale this area has never seen before.

Many are worried about the impact it will have on wildlife. “It is in the very prime habitat. Animals are concentrated in the areas where oil is,” says Justine Namara, head of the environmental impact assessment unit at the Uganda Wildlife Authority.

The project is set to transform not only this landscape, but also the energy market of east Africa, producing 230,000 barrels of oil a day by 2025. Uganda is set to become an energy producer for the first time, exporting the oil through a 1,443km-long heated pipeline that runs through Tanzania.

A map of Uganda and Tanzania showing the route of the East African crude oil pipeline. Also shown is the Murchison Falls national park where 10 well pads and a new feeder pipeline from the Tilenga oil project will encroach on the national park's boundaries

Construction has already begun, but climate activists are working hard to halt the development. Like the Keystone pipeline in the US, or Adani’s Carmichael coal mine in Australia, the Lake Albert project has become a key battleground between environmental groups that are growing in influence, and energy companies under pressure to change the way they do business.

In a world where the effects of global warming are becoming more apparent, and the world’s biggest economies have pledged to slash emissions, the Lake Albert project has become a litmus test for large-scale oil development in the age of net zero.

In order for global net emissions to fall to zero by 2050, and limit global warming to 1.5C, new oil and gas development would need to stop completely, the International Energy Agency said last year. But companies such as TotalEnergies and Cnooc are still going to great lengths, in one of the world’s most sensitive environments, to pull oil out of the ground.

The government calls this a means of economic progress, says Vanessa Nakate, the Ugandan climate justice activist. “But the project itself is going to cause a lot of harm, for people and for the environment. So it should not proceed.”

Pipeline dreams

Oil seepages were first spotted on the ground near Lake Albert more than a century ago, but the formal discovery of the resource only came in 2006. Despite the size of the deposit, for several years it was unclear whether it would ever get developed. The location of the oil, partially inside a national park, and in landlocked Uganda, means that the crude will be extremely hard to get to market.

Within the energy sector, the project is seen as being unusually difficult due to the long pipeline. “You could compare this to a Kashagan, [which is] probably the most complicated oil project out there,” says Oswald Clint, energy analyst at Bernstein, referring to the Kazakh oilfield in the Caspian Sea. He believes the Lake Albert project may be one of the last big projects to be undertaken with such a high level of complexity, as the energy transition picks up pace.

Uganda’s determination to extract the economic value of this resource, combined with TotalEnergies’s growing focus on the Lake Albert project, helped to get it over the line despite the many obstacles. A final investment decision for the $10bn project (which includes the Tilenga oilfield, Kingfisher oilfield and Eacop pipeline) was announced with great fanfare in February.

Chief Warden Edison Nuwamanya
Edison Nuwamanya is chief warden at Murchison Falls National Park, which is home to some of the largest populations of elephants, giraffes, lions and leopards anywhere on the planet © Leslie Hook/FT

Justine Namara, head of the environmental impact assessment unit at the Uganda Wildlife Authority
Justine Namara, head of the environmental impact assessment unit at the Uganda Wildlife Authority, says ‘animals are concentrated in the areas where oil is’ © Leslie Hook/FT

During a ceremony in Kampala to mark the FID’s signing, TotalEnergies chief executive Patrick Pouyanné called it a “day of happiness”. He recounted travelling to Uganda more than any other country since 2018, to make sure the project went through.

“We spent 10 years . . . to achieve this commitment today. We have four years now to build it,” he said in a speech to Ugandan ministers and foreign oil executives gathered at the event.

Pouyanné also expressed his thanks to Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni, one of the longest-serving leaders in Africa, who has been a key backer of the project. He described spending an evening with the leader in November 2019 that was pivotal to the outcome. “Both of us decided, alone, that we will reach this FID, whatever it cost,” he recalled.

The Ugandan government says the project will give the country a much-needed boost in revenue of up to $1.2bn to add to its $41bn gross domestic product, and provide jobs to an economy still reeling from the pandemic.

Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni
Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni has been a key backer of the project © Abubaker Lubowa/Reuters

“Uganda is a landlocked country, and a developing country — our energy demands are going up,” says Joseph Kobusheshe, director for environment, health and safety at the Petroleum Authority of Uganda.

He is on a short break from a seminar about how to deal with oil spills when we meet in the lobby of the Sheraton Hotel in Kampala. Kobusheshe admits that the location inside a national park is not ideal. “If we had a choice, we would love for this resource to be in any other part of the world,” he says. “The decision to produce oil in that part of Uganda was not just handed out without guiding processes.”

From the perspective of the Ugandan government, the benefits outweigh the risks. “The Tilenga project gives us the opportunity to tackle ending energy poverty in the country. It also gives us much-needed revenue to tackle other infrastructure and services that the country needs,” Kobusheshe says.

The oil opposition

Yet even as Uganda prepares to start producing its first oil, activists have stepped up campaigns against the TotalEnergies project both inside and outside the country.

One battle is being fought in the courtroom. In France, a lawsuit brought by Friends of the Earth, and other NGOs, is set to go to trial later this year. In what the plaintiffs believe to be a landmark case, it alleges that TotalEnergies failed to uphold its “duty of vigilance” to protect the environment and human rights in Uganda, which is a legal obligation under French law. A particularly sensitive point is the land acquisition process, as thousands of people are being relocated to make space for the oil facilities and pipeline in Uganda and Tanzania.

TotalEnergies is expected to contest charges it neglected its obligations. “TotalEnergies SE’s vigilance plan already identifies the risks that correspond to the NGO’s concerns,” the company said.

Locals gather on the shore of Albert Lake in Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda
Locals gather on the shore of Albert Lake in Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda © Erik Sampers/ABACA/Reuters

Meanwhile the financing of the Eacop pipeline is also coming under pressure, from a group of more than 30 NGOs that are targeting the project’s finance and insurance. As part of the “Stop Eacop” campaign, whose backers include Avaaz, Extinction Rebellion and 350Africa.org, they are asking banks and financial institutions not to fund the project. So far, 15 banks and six insurers (and reinsurers) have promised not to provide project financing.

Juliette Renaud, a campaigner for Friends of the Earth France, points to the people displaced by the pipeline, the sensitive local ecology and the potential impact on Lake Albert and Lake Victoria, two major water sources for the region. “It is ticking all the bad boxes,” she says. “It is really the worst project that you could imagine.”

Within Uganda, several NGOs have been fighting to stop the project and highlight its environmental and human rights shortcomings — in defiance of a government known for stifling political free speech and dissent.

A road under construction at the park
A road under construction at the park © Leslie Hook/FT

Nakate, one of the leaders of the climate youth movement alongside Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, has used her global platform to draw attention to the project. But a wide range of activists and groups are increasingly being targeted by Museveni’s government.

“Many people who are speaking against the project, they are being seen as enemies of economic progress,” Nakate explains. “But I think that development that harms the planet and ecosystems — and people — is not something that we can term as ‘development’.”

Last year, authorities suspended the activities of more than 50 NGOs and subsequently arrested several environmental campaigners. One of those was Dickens Kamugisha, chief executive officer at the Africa Institute for Energy Governance, in Kampala.

He recounts spending three nights in a police cell, only to have his case closed a few weeks later. “We were being intimidated,” he says. “It is really getting worse.”

At a recent climate march in Paris, a giant pipeline was carried by protesters along with ‘Stop Eacop’ signs
At a recent climate march in Paris, a giant pipeline was carried by protesters along with ‘Stop Eacop’ signs © Alban Grosdidier/350.org

He says that people who live in the communities affected by the project are also facing recrimination if they oppose the project. “For the people who stand and speak, they will become real targets.”

For international campaigners outside of Uganda, the project has become a rallying point for the global climate movement. At a recent climate march in Paris, a giant pipeline was carried by protesters along with “Stop Eacop” signs. “It has become one of the iconic projects that the climate movement is fighting against,” says Renaud.

For her and other campaigners, stopping the Lake Albert project is also about sending a message to other oil companies. “The message is that no new fossil fuel projects should exist, and that civil society will resist these projects,” she says. “We will never stop.”

Total’s goals

TotalEnergies says that, despite activists’ pressure, the shareholders of the project have committed to provide the financing to realise it. However, it is not completely finalised yet. “The financing of the Eacop project with external debt is currently ongoing and being arranged,” the company said.

The group also says the project is compatible with its climate goals, which include a 20 per cent reduction in the carbon intensity of its products — referring to the emissions of CO2 per unit of energy that customers use — by 2030, compared with 2015 levels.

Construction underway by TotalEnergies at Murchison Falls National Park
TotalEnergies conducted seismic surveys and geologic testing in Murchison Falls National Park in 2013 © TotalEnergies

The Lake Albert project will have lower emissions per barrel produced (13kg per barrel) than the average of the rest of TotalEnergies’ production portfolio (20kg per barrel), the company says. It has set a target to reduce its oil emissions by 30 per cent by 2030, compared with 2015 levels.

“The Tilenga development and Eacop pipeline project are consistent with our strategy to focus on low cost break-even oil projects, while lowering the average carbon intensity of the company’s upstream portfolio,” the company said. “TotalEnergies is also taking into the highest consideration the sensitive environmental context and social stakes of these onshore projects.”

However, climate analysts are not convinced. “The project may be compatible with their [TotalEnergies’] climate goals. But it doesn’t mean their climate goals are appropriate — for the climate, or for their shareholders,” said Mike Coffin, a geologist and analyst at Carbon Tracker, a London-based think-tank.

He explains that the emissions intensity targets favoured by oil companies are essentially skirting around the issue of their absolute total emissions. “Our focus is very much on absolute emissions reductions, and we see an intensity approach as ultimately failing to follow through, to finite planetary limits,” Coffin says.

Protecting the environment

The companies that have worked for decades to develop the oilfield have made a lot of promises about how they will reduce the impact of the development.

For the Tilenga oilfield alone, TotalEnergies has produced an environmental impact assessment that runs more than 4,000 pages. The company says it is giving the “highest consideration” to the sensitive environment of Murchison National Park.

Those measures include designing the project to have a much smaller footprint than usual, with about 14 wells squeezed into each of the 10 well pads that are inside the national park. Noise limits, buried pipelines and elephant-proof fencing around work areas are also all specified in the environmental impact assessment. Much bigger infrastructure will be located just outside the park, where land has already been cleared for a central processing facility.

But for people whose lives have already been affected by the project, those promises about its future impact are hard to believe.

In the nearby fishing village of Wanseko, on the shores of Lake Albert, fishermen say they have already noticed some changes after extensive geologic testing and seismic work was undertaken in the area.

Fisherman Wandera Kennedy
Fisherman Wandera Kennedy says seismic testing has affected his catch © Leslie Hook/FT

Fisherman Felex Kabarole
Felex Kabarole says that many of the promised jobs have gone to people from outside the local community © Leslie Hook/FT

“The surveys had a big impact on the fish — it caused a lot of drop in the fishing activities,” says Wandera Kennedy, a fisherman who has lived in the area for all of his 40 years. “Since they started the [seismic] bombing, the number of catch has been reduced,” he says.

The pipeline that carries oil out of the national park will be tunnelled under the Nile River, and Kennedy says his community is afraid of the impact. “We are worried that, sometimes, when those pipelines are put down, [they] will burst, and it will affect us. I watched television here, and you could see in Nigeria, where oily activities are taking place, you could see these fish which are dying.”

Another fisherman, Felex Kabarole, runs his hand through a pile of small fish drying in the sun while his friend speaks. He has also noticed a decrease in his catch since the seismic testing took place, and complains that fishing activities were stopped completely at times. “During research they used our government army to chase us, saying go away,” he recalls. “So they deny our rights to fish,” he says. “And when you cannot fish, you cannot pay school fees for your family.”

The village of Wanseko has already been transformed by the oil project, even before a single drop has been extracted. Brand new tarmac roads and multi-story buildings mark the centre of a place, which for years was considered an economic backwater. But Kabarole says that many locals have been left out of this boom. “The government can talk about jobs but our community is crying. There are no jobs. Most of those people come from Kampala,” says Kabarole.

Back in Murchison Falls National Park, the rangers are doing what they can to protect the animals from the development about to begin.

Antelopes in the savannah
Antelopes are just one of the many species of animals in the park © Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images

Cranes glide over the Albert Lake
Royal cranes glide over Albert Lake © Erik Sampers/ABACA/Reuters

To study the animals’ reaction to the oil project, researchers will monitor their hormones and their stress levels by collecting blood and fecal samples. Other park staff are getting special drone training, so that they can use drones to monitor the well pads when the drilling begins.

TotalEnergies has also paid the park to hire rangers to accompany its vehicles on patrol, and is discussing an MOU with the park that would see it cover the salaries of at least 30 additional park staff.

Campaigners say that, despite all the environmental plans and pledges about limiting the impact of the oil drilling in the park, the evidence is already clear to see.

Bulldozers and backhoes are already constructing a giant highway through the middle of the park. For now, its only traffic is a bit of construction machinery, and an occasional wandering buffalo. But soon, it will carry oil equipment into the centre of the reserve.

“If the government can construct that huge road in protected areas for hundreds of kilometres,” says Kamugisha, the Ugandan climate activist, “then there is no way you can have hope that more bad things will not happen.”

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