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Congo to Auction Off Oil and Gas Blocks In a Step Back for Climate Change

DAKAR, Senegal — Home to one of the largest jungles on Earth, the Democratic Republic of Congo is auctioning off massive amounts of land in a bid to become “the new destination for oil investment” as part of a global shift as the world moves back in the fight against climate change in a race for fossil fuels.

The oil and gas blocks, to be auctioned in late July, will extend into Virunga National Park, the world’s premier gorilla reserve, as well as tropical peat bogs that store massive amounts of carbon, keep it out of the atmosphere and contribute to global warming. .

“If oil is being exploited in these areas, we should expect a global climate catastrophe, and we will all have to watch helplessly,” said Irene Wabiwa, who oversees the Congo Basin forest campaign for Greenpeace in Kinshasa.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine sent oil prices soaring, leading to US and British bans on Russian energy and, last week, a call to ration natural gas in Europe.

At the same time, Norway, a leading advocate of saving forests, is increasing oil production with plans for more offshore drilling. And President Biden, who pledged early in his term to wean the world from fossil fuels, recently traveled to Saudi Arabia, where he addressed the need for more oil production. At home, Mr Biden’s ambitious domestic climate agenda is largely doomed to fail.

Congo has taken note of each of these global events, said Tosi Mpanu Mpanu, the country’s chief representative on climate issues and adviser to the minister of hydrocarbons.

Congo’s sole purpose with the auction, he said, is to generate enough revenue to help the struggling nation fund programs to reduce poverty and generate much-needed economic growth.

“That is our priority,” Mr Mpanu said in an interview last week. “Our priority is not to save the planet.”

Congo announced the auction in May, with posted a video on Twitter showing a gleaming river nestled in a deep bed of lush rainforest. The video quickly came to a close-up of a gas station pump, where yellowish gas poured into a car tank. US and French oil giants Chevron and TotalEnergies were tagged in the post.

Environmental groups were outraged. Last week, Congolese officials doubled and expanded the number of blocks — huge lots — up for grabs, from 16 to 30, comprising 27 oil and three gas blocks. TotalEnergies said it did not intend to make an offer and Chevron did not respond to a request for comment. Other major oil producers also declined to comment.

The auction highlights a double standard that many political leaders on the African continent have proclaimed: how can Western countries, which have built their wealth on fossil fuels that emit toxic, planet-warming fumes, require Africa to increase their reserves of coal, oil and gas? to protect everyone?

“Maybe it’s time we level the playing field and get compensated,” said Mr Mpanu.

Many Congolese officials believe that after decades of colonialism and political mismanagement, their country’s needs should take precedence over the world’s.

For President Tshisekedi, establishing his nation as a bulwark against global warming has met with political reality. The next presidential election in the country is 18 months from now, but the jostling has already started with Mr Tshisekedi running for a new term. In 2018, he was declared the winner of a highly controversial election. He struck a deal with his predecessor, the unpopular but still powerful Joseph Kabila, who was labeled corrupt by Western officials. The pair’s settlement fell apart in 2020, but some analysts warn that Kabila or his cronies could get in the mood at a time when foreign investment is pouring into the country.

How much compensation is at stake for Congo will not be known until seismic surveys are carried out – a very destructive process in itself, according to scientists.

In May, Didier Budimbu, Congo’s minister of hydrocarbons, said that the country, which is currently about 25,000 barrels of oil per day, had the potential to produce up to 1 million barrels. At current prices, that’s the equivalent of $32 billion a year, more than half of Congo’s GDP.

Mr Mpanu pointed to the Amazon as an example of how countries with natural resources should act if richer countries did not compensate them.

In 2007, Rafael Correa, then president of Ecuador, established a trust fund that could fund the international community to stop the country from exploring an oil block in Yasuní National Park, one of the most biodiverse regions in the world. The goal was to raise approximately $3.6 billion. Years later, it had raised just $13 million. So, in 2013, the government decided to allow oil exploration. Drilling started three years later.

“We don’t like threats,” said Mr. Mpanu, who rejected the idea that the Congo auction was just an attempt to scare countries into offering more financial aid. “We have a very humble attitude. We have the sovereign right to continue.”

But scientists say continuing can destroy precious rainforests and peatlandsforming one of the last lines of defense for a planet struggling to contain rising temperatures.

Seismic surveys to identify oil deposits would mean cutting long trails through the rainforest and firing explosives. Waste from the oil production process, which contains salt and heavy metals, could disrupt the salt balance of the entire Congo Basin ecosystem, such as in the Amazon. Road construction, necessary for the oil industry, would open large areas of sparsely populated rainforest to human habitation, leading to more logging.

It would also likely drain and dry out peatlands, peat experts said, eventually leading to their decomposition and the release of the carbon they trap.

If this were to happen, said Susan Page, a professor of physical geography at the University of Leicester in Britain, the massive amount of carbon being released very quickly “could actually be something of a tipping point for the global climate.”

Mr Mpanu claimed that drilling could be “surgical” and that companies could find a way to drill diagonally to avoid hitting the bog. He insisted that any action would be consistent with global climate commitments and would come after extensive environmental impact assessments and studies of how local populations would be affected.

A Greenpeace team recently consulted people living in the proposed oil blocks and said residents were against drilling and would launch protests, Ms Wabiwa said.

Instead of alleviating poverty, she said, selling oil blocks would make a lot of money for a few people.

Mr Budimbu, Congo’s minister of hydrocarbons, has consulted some of Africa’s biggest oil producers, such as Angola, Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea, “so that the DRC can go down the same path,” he said. a recent release on the Ministry’s website.

But if Congo were to follow in their footsteps, it could spell a fate some are calling the “resource curse,” where citizens fail to take advantage of their country’s natural wealth and economic development remains anemic. In Nigeria, oil is the mainstay of the economy, but its production has also led to devastating spills and increasing inequality. In Equatorial Guinea, the majority of the population lives below the poverty line and does not reap any advantage of the country’s vast oil wealth.

The decision to allow more research has been carefully considered, government officials said, although it appeared to be the subject of internal debate.

In March, ve Bazaiba, Congo’s environment minister, told The New York Times officials were hesitant to continue. “Should we protect peatland because it’s a carbon sink or should we dig for oil for our economy?” she said.

Last week she indicated that she was willing to return to the auction.

“If we have an alternative to oil exploitation, we’ll keep it,” she saidtalking about the peatland.

But Mr Mpanu said Congo has already paid its climate contribution. It will enable the mining of minerals and metals such as cobalt and lithium that are essential to the renewable energy industry and it plans to develop hydropower.

“We are part of the solution, but the solution also involves using our oil resources,” he said.

He said the nation could try to protect other land to make up for what would be lost from drilling in places like Virunga, noting that it would be up to oil companies to decide whether to drill within the park boundaries.

“If we lose 10 hectares, we can protect 20 now,” he said. “Sure, it won’t have the same biodiversity and fauna, but the country has that right.”

When asked which oil company, in an age when consumer awareness is greater than ever, would consider drilling into a protected gorilla habitat, Mr. Mpanu didn’t hesitate.

“It is what it is,” he said. “We just need to see how much people appreciate that resource.”

Dionne Searcey reported from New York; Manuela Andreoni contributed from Rio de Janeiro.

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