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Drilling in one of the planet's largest carbon sinks could release greenhouse gases equivalent to Japan's annual emissions, experts warn.
The world's largest tropical peatlands could be destroyed if plans continue to drill for oil under the Congo Basin, according to research suggesting that draining the area would release the same amount of carbon dioxide that Japan emits annually.
Preserving the Congo's Cuvette Centrale peatlands, which are the size of England and store 30 billion tons of carbon, is "absolutely essential" if there is any hope of meeting the goals of the Paris climate agreement, the scientists warn.
However, this jungle is now the last frontier for oil exploration, according to research by Global Witness and the European Investigations Research network that questions developers' claims that the oil reservoir could contain 359 million barrels of oil.
La Cuvette Centrale is part of the Congo Basin, which is the second largest tropical forest in the world and one of the most remote areas in the world. This virgin region is flooded for most of the year and is an important habitat for endangered forest elephants and lowland gorillas.
In 2017 it made headlines after scientists announced the discovery of 145,500 square kilometers of peatlands. They estimated that it stored the equivalent of three years of global fossil fuel emissions, making it one of the largest carbon sinks on the planet, according to an article published in the journal Nature.
But in August 2019, a Congolese company called Petroleum Exploration and Production Africa (Pepa) announced that there were hundreds of millions of barrels of oil under the Cuvette Centrale. The exploitation of this resource would quadruple the country's oil production and solve its indebted finances, the company said.
In a televised address a few days later, Congo-Brazzaville President Denis Sassou-Nguesso said that the oil fields would not destroy the peatlands because they were on the periphery of the drilling sites, adding that he had "no intention" to circumvent the obligation to protect Habitat. Environment Minister Arlette Soudan-Nonault reinforced the message, telling Le Monde that the drilling "was not in the peatlands."
However, according to the research, the environmental assessment that analyzed the impact of drilling in 2013 was written a year before the discovery of the peatlands in 2014.
Pepa's chief told The Guardian that an environmental impact study that was validated by the environment ministry was carried out prior to recent exploration work.
Two of the four potential underground reservoirs are located directly under carbon-rich turbines, according to analysis of publicly available data from researchers at the University of Leeds.
Global Witness says it believes the proposed Ngoki oil block contains 6,000 square kilometers of peatlands. Using data from the University of Leeds' online resource CongoPeat, the organization estimates that draining this section of peatlands alone could release 1.34 gigatons of carbon, the same as Japan's total annual emissions.
Professor Simon Lewis, who led the UK-Congo research team that found the peatlands, says that preserving them is "absolutely essential in terms of meeting the commitments of the Paris agreement." The influx of people to the region would also increase hunting, road construction and further exploitation, he said. “There are huge amounts of carbon and biodiversity, and this should be one of the regions where we have different development paths that do not lead to the destruction of the natural world. If it is not here in the Congo, where is it possible? Here is a real opportunity to do something different and much better ”.
The Ngoki oil project is spearheaded by Congolese oil baron Claude Wilfrid “Willy” Etoka, who is the 10th richest man in Francophone Africa, believed to be worth more than $ 500 million (£ 388 million). He is President of Pepa and the main shareholder of the company. Etoka claims that the scheme will not harm the environment and told The Guardian that the Ngoki project is "far from peatlands."
“Compared to coastal oil operations, which can produce traces of marine pollution, oil exploration in the Cubeta does not present risks of environmental disturbance… The President of the Republic of the Congo, who is in charge of protecting the Congo Basin, would not have authorized us to explore in look for oil there if there is any evidence of such risks, "he said.
Soudan-Nonault also claimed that the Ngoki permit was located "on the edge and outside" of the peatland area.
Oil industry experts say proclamations of devastating oil reserves have been exaggerated and, after analyzing seismic surveys, Total and Shell rejected offers to invest in Ngoki in 2015. A senior Shell source said seismic surveys showed that the Oil deposits were probably "modest" and "given the surface risk and operational challenges in this area, the 'prize size' would have to be very substantial."
Critics say that the exploration done so far, a 2D seismic survey and an exploratory well in 2019, are not enough to calculate the size of the oil reservoir. A geologist chartered by the Geological Society of London who reviewed the seismic survey described it as "very basic" and said "there could be nothing of importance." Pepa claims that a large well was discovered during drilling.
Francis Perrin, a senior researcher with oil and gas experience at the Institut de RelationsInternationales et Stratégiques, says that Pepa's claims that the Ngoki oil project could produce 900,000 barrels per day are "ridiculous."
"Serious international companies will not invest in this project until Pepa can put her findings on the table," he said. "It is not enough to have one survey: you have to do several surveys and that can take months or years, depending on the size of the discovery."
Etoka told The Guardian that the size of the oil discovery was based on "objectively verifiable data." He added: “Production tests will tell us a bit more in the coming days. We continue to maintain a low profile while we await confirmation. President Sassou-Nguesso declined to comment.
Colin Robertson, a Global Witness activist who worked on the research, said: “The large amounts of carbon stored in the peatland forests of the Congo Basin mean that they are of global importance in the fight against climate change. These are one of the last places on Earth where extracting more fossil fuels should be considered. Any responsible investor should rule this out. "