DRC: concern over the potential development of oil drilling DRC: concern over the potential development of oil drilling

DRC: concern over the potential development of oil drilling

DRC: concern over the potential development of oil drilling

The oil drills looming on the road to Adore Ngaka's house remind him every day of everything he has lost. Mining in his village in the western Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has polluted the soil, withered his crops and forced his family to dip into their savings to survive.

Pointing to a shriveled ear of corn in his garden, the 27-year-old farmer says it is only half the size it was before the expansion of oil activities nearly a decade ago in his village of Tshiende. “This is pushing us into poverty ,” he said.

Congo, a central African country rich in minerals, also has significant oil reserves . Drilling so far has been limited to a small area along the Atlantic Ocean and offshore, but that is likely to change if the government succeeds in auctioning 30 oil and gas blocks spread across the country. the country. 

Leaders say economic growth is essential for their impoverished people, but some communities, rights groups and environmental watchdogs warn that expanded drilling will harm the landscape and human health.

Pollution
Since the Franco-British hydrocarbon company Perenco began drilling in Moanda territory in 2000, residents say pollution has worsened, with spills and leaks degrading the soil and flaring - the intentional burning of natural gas near drilling sites - polluting the air they breathe. According to them, the Congolese government exercises little control.

Perenco said its extraction methods met international standards, posed no health risks and any pollution was minor. The company also said it was proposing to support a power plant that would use natural gas and thereby reduce flaring.

The government did not respond to questions about the proposed plant. Congolese Oil and Gas Minister Didier Budimbu said the government was committed to protecting the environment.

The DRC is home to most of the Congo Basin rainforest , the second largest in the world, and most of the world's largest tropical peatland, composed of partially decomposed plant material from wetlands. Together, these two areas capture huge amounts of carbon dioxide - around 1.5 billion tonnes per year, or around 3% of global emissions. More than a dozen parcels up for auction straddle protected areas of peatlands and rainforests, including Virunga National Park , home to some of the world's rarest gorillas .

Poverty
The government said the 27 available oil blocks contain an estimated 22 billion barrels of oil. Environmental groups say auctioning more land for drilling would have consequences both at home and abroad.

“Any new oil or gas project anywhere in the world fuels the climate and nature crisis we find ourselves in ,” said Mbong Akiy Fokwa Tsafak , program director for Greenpeace Africa . According to her, Perenco's activities have done nothing to alleviate poverty , but have instead degraded the ecosystem and burdened the lives of communities.

Environmental advocates believe that the DRC has strong potential to develop renewable energy , including solar energy , as well as small-scale hydroelectricity . The DRC is the world's largest producer of cobalt , a key component of electric vehicle batteries and other products critical to the global energy transition, although cobalt mining comes with its own environmental and human risks.

Mr Budimbu said now was not the time to move away from fossil fuels while the country was still dependent on them. He added that dependence on fossil fuels will be phased out in the long term.

Rich in biodiversity, Moanda borders the Mangrove National Park , the country's only protected marine area. Perenco has been under scrutiny for years, with local researchers, aid groups and the Congolese Senate reporting numerous cases of pollution dating back more than a decade. Two civil society organizations, Sherpa and Friends of the Earth France , filed a lawsuit in 2022, accusing Perenco of pollution caused by oil extraction; this action is still in progress.

Health
In a rare visit by international media to the oil fields, including two villages near the drilling, The Associated Press spoke with dozens of residents, local officials and rights groups. the man. Residents say the drilling has come closer to their homes and they have seen pipes break regularly, spilling oil into the ground. They blame air and soil pollution for making it difficult to grow crops and causing health problems such as skin rashes and respiratory infections .

They say Perenco responded quickly to leaks and spills, but failed to tackle the root problems.

AP journalists visited drilling sites, sometimes just a few hundred yards from homes, where pipes were exposed and corroded. They also saw at least four sites where natural gas was flared, a technique that manages pressure by burning the gas that is often used when it is not practical or cost-effective to collect it. AP did not see any active spill sites.

Between 2012 and 2022 in the DRC, Perenco burned more than 2 billion cubic meters of natural gas, a carbon footprint equivalent to that of around 20 million Congolese, according to the Environmental Investigative Forum , a global consortium of journalists from environmental investigation. The group analyzed data from Skytruth , a group that uses satellite imagery to monitor threats to the planet's natural resources.

According to the International Energy Agency, flaring of natural gas, which is mainly composed of methane, emits carbon dioxide, methane and black soot and harms health.

Chemical products
In the village of Kinkazi, residents told AP that Perenco had buried chemicals in a nearby pit for years and they had seeped into the soil and water. They showed photos of what they say were toxic chemicals before they were buried and took reporters to the site where they say they were dumped. It took four years of protests and strikes for Perenco to dump the chemicals elsewhere, they said.

Most villagers were reluctant to have their names mentioned because they feared a negative reaction from a company that is a source of casual employment. Minutes after AP journalists arrived in one village, a resident said he received a call from a Perenco employee asking about the purpose of the meeting.

Gertrude Tshonde, a farmer, agreed to speak. She said Perenco began dumping chemicals near Kinkazi in 2018 after a nearby village refused to allow it.

“People from Tshiende called us and asked if we would let them dump waste in our area ,” said Gertrude Tshonde. “They said the waste was no good because it goes underground and destroys the soil.”

Ms Tshonde said her farm was behind the pit where chemicals were dumped and her cassava started to rot. AP could not independently verify that chemicals had been buried at the site.

Mark Antelme, a spokesman for Perenco, said the company does not bury chemicals underground and that complaints about the site near Kinkazi were linked to past dumps done more than 20 years ago by a previous company. Mr. Antelme also said that Perenco had not moved its activities closer to homes. On the contrary, some communities have gradually moved closer to drilling sites.

Mr. Antelme also said the company's flares do not release methane into the atmosphere.

Perenco maintains that she was contributing significantly to Moanda and the country. It is the sole energy supplier in Moanda and invests around $250 million a year in education, road construction, training programs for medical staff and easier access to health care in isolated communities. , the company said.

Oil spill
But residents say some of those benefits are exaggerated. The dispensary built by Perenco in a village has no medicines and few people can afford to pay to see the doctor.

And when Perenco compensates for the damage caused by the oil leak, residents say it's not enough.

Farmer Tshonde says she received about $200 when an oil spill destroyed her mangoes, avocados and corn eight years ago. But its losses were more than twice as high. The lasting damage caused to her land by Perenco's activities has forced her to seek other sources of income, such as felling trees to sell as charcoal.

Many other farmers whose land has been degraded are doing the same, and the vegetation cover is disappearing, she said.

Didier Budimbu, the Minister of Hydrocarbons, argues that Congolese laws prohibit drilling near homes and fields and that oil operators are required to take the necessary measures to prevent and clean up oil pollution. But he did not specify what the government was doing in response to community complaints.

The DRC has struggled to find bidders since the auction launched in July 2022. Three companies – two American and one Canadian – have positioned themselves on three methane gas blocks in Lake Kivu , on the border with the Rwanda. The government said in May that it was close to closing those tenders , but did not respond to questions from the AP in January about whether those deals were finalized.

No deals have been confirmed for the 27 oil blocks, and the deadline for expressions of interest has been extended until the end of the year. Late last year, Perenco withdrew from bidding for two blocks in the province, near where it currently operates. The company did not respond to AP's questions about the reasons for its withdrawal, but Africa Intelligence reported that Perenco had assessed that the blocks did not have sufficient potential.

Conflicts
Perenco also did not respond to a question about whether it was interested in other blocks.

Environmental experts say tenders could be slow because the country is a difficult place to operate due to endemic conflicts , particularly in the east, where violence is increasing and where some of the blocs are located.

Local advocacy groups say the government should fix Perenco's problems before bringing in other companies. “ We must first see changes with the company we have here before trusting others ,” said Alphonse Khonde, coordinator of the Group of Actors and Actions for Sustainable Development.

Congo also has a history of corruption. Little of its mineral wealth has been redistributed in a country that is one of the five poorest in the world, with more than 60% of its 100 million people living on less than $2.15 a day, according to the World Bank . .

Drilling
Some groups have criticized what they see as a lack of transparency in the block auction process, meaning that "local communities are kept in the dark about plans to exploit their land and their resources ,” says Joe Eisen, executive director of the Rainforest Foundation UK.

Some communities, to which the government has failed to provide jobs and basic services, say they have no choice but to bet on allowing more drilling.

In the village of Kimpozia, near one of the auctioned areas, some 150 people live nestled in the forest, without a school or hospital. Residents have to walk up steep hills and ride five hours on motorbikes to reach the nearest health clinic and walk several hours to get to school.

Louis Wolombassa, the village chief, believes that the village needed road construction and other forms of assistance. “If they come and bring what we want, let them drill . ”

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