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U.S. Presses Congo to Slow Oil-and-Gas Push in Rainforests

KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of the Congo — Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken urged a reconsideration of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s plans to auction off portions of its vast rainforests and peatlands and announced that U.S. and Congolese officials would team up to extract proposed oil. research and gas extraction in those areas.

The agreement came about on Tuesday during Mr Blinken’s visit to Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. While there, the secretary of state expressed concern about an attempt by the country’s president, Félix Tshisekedi, to auction huge tracts of land crucial to mitigating climate change to energy companies for exploration. Comments from Mr Blinken were the first time the US government took a public stance on the issue.

“We were concerned about the announcement of the auction of these oil and gas exploration blocks,” Mr Blinken said at a news conference on Tuesday. “Some blocks encroach on sensitive rainforests and peatlands, including in Virunga National Park and Salonga National Park.”

He noted that at the United Nations climate summit in Glasgow in November, governments made a collective pledge of $1.5 billion to support forests in the Congo Basin. Mr. Tshisekedi signed the 10-year plan and was hailed as a leader in efforts to combat climate change.

His government’s abrupt announcement of the auction in May stunned officials, environmental groups and policymakers worldwide. The auction started on July 28 and the government is accepting bids for 27 oil blocks and three gas blocks.

U.S. officials say they are so far unaware of U.S. companies making bids.

Mr Blinken said he raised the issue separately on Tuesday with Mr Tshisekedi and Christophe Lutundula, the foreign minister, and Jean-Michel Sama Lukonde, the prime minister, on Wednesday. He said Mr Tshisekedi had promised him that the proposed actions would not go ahead “in the absence of full environmental impact assessments and studies.”

It is unclear whether the US intervention will delay the auction process or its aftermath, or if it will encourage other countries to try to get involved. But the announcement of the transnational task force was seen as a hopeful sign by some scholars who have studied threats to the rainforest, especially as Congolese officials had insisted that the rainforest issue is a sovereign issue.

“It is very important that the environmental impacts of drilling for rainforest oil are discussed at the highest level,” said Simon Lewis, a professor of global change science at University College London. “Logically, the DRC government should now officially suspend the oil auction until the new DRC-US working group has finalized its discussions and implemented any short-term actions.

“In my opinion, environmental and social assessments should be completed before each auction, as this is the only way the people of the DRC and the world can see if the search for oil makes sense,” he added.

US officials said they needed to work out the details of the working group with Congo.

Mr Lutundula said at the press conference with Mr Blinken that Congo would keep its promise to protect the rainforests last year, but also stressed that the government needed to find ways to improve the economy of Congo, a country of 90 million people. that is one of the poorest in the world. It was exploited as a colony of Belgium for decades before being ruled by dictators.

“The challenge is to find a balance, a balance between the well-being of the Congolese people and also the need to ensure a framework, a development framework, an ecological framework,” said Mr Lutundula.

He also pointed to the history of foreign companies in his country, saying: “We know that there are some countries that have been exploiting the DRC’s resources for years and do not respect biodiversity at all.”

The rainforest of the Congo Basin stretches 1,500 miles across Central Africa. It acts as a major carbon sink and slows climate change by removing 1.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere annually, Mr Lewis said.

Without solid exploration data, Congolese officials have speculated that there are up to 16 billion barrels of oil under the rainforest and that the country could produce up to a million barrels per day, against the current figure of 25,000.

Energy companies have made record profits on oil sales this year as the market price has risen. But environmental advocates say a move by Congo to become a petro-economy is short-sighted, given the increasing adoption of renewable energy by many countries, institutions and companies.

Mr Blinken and Congolese officials also spoke about improving mining, which is riddled with corruption and environmental destruction. He said the United States wanted to work with Congo to ensure that mining companies do not fall into “a race to the bottom that harms workers, harms the environment and fuels armed conflict”.

Mr Blinken has also urged Congolese officials to ensure that next year’s presidential elections, in which Mr Tshisekedi plans to run again, are held correctly and on time. On Tuesday, police officers arrested Jean-Marc Kabund, a former Tshisekedi ally and now an opposition party leader, on unannounced charges.

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