How will oil impact Murchison Falls National Park?

What you need to know:

Whereas some environmentalists have raised concerns in regard to oil activities in game parks, oil companies say they have environmentally friendly technology that minimizes damage on animal activities.

It is only a 15-kilometre drive from Paraa Bridge in Murchison Falls National Park to north of River Nile.

Here, Pearl Engineering is undertaking the construction of the Tangi Operation Support Base Camp.

The base camp is expected to be complete in July or mid-August. It will host more than 600 workers, who will handle oil operations for more than 10 well pads in Murchison National Falls Park.

However, the threat of oil operations within Uganda’s largest conservation area remains a concern to environmentalists.

Murchison falls is the largest and second-most visited national park in Uganda. It is ecologically important for a number of both global and regional species.

It comprises of an array of protected sites plus a forest reserves that form an important animal corridor. It also represent a biodiversity hotspot for tourism and recreation. 

Total Energies in its Environmental Social Impact Assessment indicates that the park together with the adjacent Bugungu and Karuma wildlife reserve, forms part of the Murchison Falls Protection Area.

To put this in perspective, the national park covers Ramsar site, the Murchison Falls–Albert Delta Wetland System that was declared in 2006, consisting of the River Nile from the Murchison falls up to and including a small part of Lake Albert.

The park also has a key birding area with 451 species ranging from the rare shoe-bill stork to the dwarf kingfisher and goliath heron. It also has 76 species of mammals as well as Uganda’s largest population of the Nile crocodile.

It is also home to the largest protected population of Rosthschild’s giraffes and the recovering population of 950 elephants. 

For oil and gas extraction to occur in such a conservation areas, large-scale infrastructure such as roads, oil pipelines and buildings, which can adversely affect animal habitat, migratory pathways, and biodiversity, according to documented research by World Wildlife Fund, has to be constructed. 

Winfred Ngabiirwe, the Global Rights Alert executive director, shares similar fears from his research outlining that oil activities could cause huge consequences such as loss of biodiversity, given the ecological sensitivity of the Albertine Graben.

Ngabirwe notes that there is a high risk of pollution, disruption of wildlife, especially movements and mating patterns due to habitat demolition, and extended environmental footprint due to paving of roads and clearing drilling pads.

In fact, the World Wildlife Fund research further shows oil spills could also occur from blowouts, pipeline leaks or failures, accidents which pose a serious threat to ecosystems. 

Even so, oil and gas operations release tonnes of pollutants into the air and sometimes discharge chemicals into water.   

On its website, Total Energies indicates that in 2012, it accepted the challenge of working in Uganda’s largest protected area – the Murchison Falls National Park despite concerns being raised.

It goes on to spell out how it intends to use environmentally friendly technology within the park based on what it describes as; “proven capability in developing oil resources in sensitive areas, and creating a project that shows how oil, environment and tourism can co-exist harmoniously.”

Some of this technologies, Total Energies indicates include 3D cable-less seismic technology deployed during the exploration phase for the first time on shore in Africa, which placed Uganda at the forefront of using innovative technology in oil exploration.

3D seismic acquisition, according to Total, is based on the same principle as the ultrasound scanners used in medical clinics.

The technology produces quick results with less manpower and fewer supporting vehicles.

The technology has helped the company to achieve best coverage and quality data without deploying kilometres of cables, thus limiting the impact on vegetation.  

Joseph Kobusheshe, the Environment, Health, Safety and Security at Petroleum Authority of Uganda director in a series of opinions about the subject writes that the deployment of a modern cable-less technology in the national park in 2013 did not require any clearance of vegetation in the park.

“The well sites were fully restored after drilling activities and had it not been for a small concrete well site marker, it would be impossible for one to even know that petroleum activities were previously undertaken in the area,” he says. 

Anita Kayongo, the Total Energies corporate affairs manager, says they will undertake oil drilling in the national park in accordance with the Avoid – Reduce – Compensate principles that underpins its biodiversity policy.

“Total Energies has decided to reduce the Tilenga project’s footprint in the park to a minimum. The project’s temporary and permanent installations, including well sites, will take up less than 0.05 percent of the park’s land area,” she says. 

The Tilenga Project Area within the national park covers oil production licenses surface of 337 kilometres out of the total 3,900 kiometres coverage of the park.

 However, Total Energies has prioritised the Jobi Rii oil field with surface coverage of 36 kilometres.

Kayongo notes that the oil wells will be drilled in dedicated sites, and each site will comprise several wells to limit their number. 

The number of well pads or sites in Murchison Falls National Park has been limited to 10, in which around 140 wells will be drilled.   The oil wells drilled per site will range from six to 23 and the 10 well pads have been designed to be as compact as possible, with a minimised visual impact.

“In regards to the principle of avoid- we have decided to avoid areas that were identified such as Ramsar sites, which are ecologically sensitive,” Kayongo says.

Total Energies footprint within the park has been limited to 0.6 kilometers for temporary facilities and 1.2 kilometres for permanent facilities with impact avoidance and mitigation measures included in design.

Additionally, the oil company will have no treatment facilities in the park but will instead, evacuate all waste for treatment and will maintain horizontal drilling for Nile crossing.

The company has also put a measure for no night-time working in the park, except for drilling and traffic management plans to minimise the number of its operation vehicles to limit interferences with touristic activities in the park.

Minimising impact      

Petroleum Authority of Uganda also indicates Total Energies will minimise the visual impact of oil rigs in Murchison Falls National Park where feasible, the light will be directed inwards the facilities and will be of warm or neutral colour to limit the nuisance and to avoid attracting animals. 

Additionally, Kobusheshe notes the project will be developed by applying state-of-the-art energy efficient and environmentally friendly technologies that will include multiple drilling of up to 25 wells from a single well pad and sharing of facilities in order to minimise environmental footprint.

He adds that crude oil pipelines are also expected to be buried and equipped with leak detectors and valves to automatically shut down the pipeline in case of damage or abnormalities.

Other mitigation measures according to Kobusheshe will involve water recycling that will greatly reduce the amount of freshwater abstraction by over 90 percent and also avoid the huge volumes of wastewater requiring treatment and discharge into the environment.

“No flaring or venting of oil or gas will be permitted during normal operations. Overall, the projects fall within the category of ‘low emission,” Kobusheshe concludes.

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