Natural resources

French, Chinese oil firms agree controversial pipeline deal with Uganda,Tanzania

Small fishing boats seen on Lake Albert, near Uganda. (illustration)
Small fishing boats seen on Lake Albert, near Uganda. (illustration) AFP/Marco Longari

The Ugandan and Tanzanian governments have signed a series of agreements with oil companies Total of France and the Chinese National Offshore Oil Corporation. The deal paves the way for the construction of a pipeline to carry crude oil from Uganda to a Tanzanian port on the Indian Ocean. French and Ugandan environmental action groups have confirmed they will continue legal action against the project which they claim will cause major human and environmental problems. 

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The 3 billion euro project led by Total and the Chinese National Offshore Oil Corporation provides for the management of oilfields in the Lake Albert region in Uganda's west, and proposes pumping the crude to the coast across Tanzania via the East African Crude Oil Pipe Line (EACOP).

According to a joint press release on Sunday, the latest agreements signed by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and his Tanzanian counterpart Samia Suluhu Hassan mean that "all outstanding issues related to the EACOP Project have been amicably resolved".

The two leaders also say that a shareholding agreement had been reached and that construction contracts can now be awarded.

Current research suggests that the Lake Albert region, separating Uganda from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, has reserves of 6.5 billion barrels of crude, of which about 1.4 billion barrels are currently accessible.

At peak production of 230,000 barrels per day, the Uganda reserves could last 30 years.

The EACOP is a heated pipeline stretching 1,400 kilometres, including a 300 km stretch within Uganda, to carry the crude to the Tanzanian port of Tanga.

Extensive risks

On 1 March, more than 250 local and international organisations addressed major banks in a letter calling upon them to refrain from financing "the longest heated crude oil pipeline in the world".

The letter cites "extensively documented risks" including "impacts on local people through physical displacement ... risks to water, biodiversity and natural habitats; as well as unlocking a new source of carbon emissions".

The two French organisations, Survie and Friends of the Earth, along with StopEACOP and several Ugandan environmental action groups, have already launched a legal campaign to prevent the construction of the pipeline, or at least to oblige Total to ensure that the project will not have an irreversible human or environmental impact.

The ecology activists point to the fact that several oil wells will be sunk in the Murchison Falls nature park, that 100,000 people will be directly affected along the route of the pipeline, and that dozens of extremely fragile ecosystems in both Uganda and Tanzania will be put at risk.

The action groups also contest Total's claim that the project will create 58,000 jobs, saying that, once the construction phase, expected to last 3 or 4 years, is completed, no more than 300 permanent jobs will remain.

A French appeals court last year rejected the ecology organisations' action, saying the matter should be decided before a commercial tribunal.

The associations refused that decision, saying that the environmental and human rights risks are of sufficient gravity to warrant a full civil hearing. They have therefore brought their case to the ultimate French appeals court, the Cour de Cassation, in an effort to prove that the law has been incorrectly applied.

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