An environmental disaster in the offing in West Africa

Photo source: The Independent

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

British Petroleum is planning to drill for petroleum on the edge of the world’s largest cold water coral reef, risking biodiversity loss, global warming, and toxic fuel spills.

The British oil giant has already begun construction work on a fossil fuel project, close by to the 580km long coral ecosystem off the coast of west Africa, an area crucial for migrating water birds, as well as endangered sharks, turtles, and whales.

Unearthed and The Independent had already done an investigation project regarding the matter. The project, if approved, aims to produce 40 trillion cubic feet of gas, over the next thirty years, according to an independent estimate from Rystad Energy, a research firm.

When burned, this amount of gas would produce 2.2 billion tonnes of CO2 – nearly twice the annual energy emissions of the entire African continent. In global terms, it equates to between 0.3 and 1 per cent of the remaining global “carbon budget” left to keep the global temperature rise to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. However, when contacted by the press, the BP refused to give their own forecast figures.

In the past, BP had previously promised to slash its emissions to net zero, by 2050, and to cut its oil and gas production, by 40percent, within a decade. The oil firm is also a partner of Prince Charles’s Terra Carta initiative, which aims to balance people’s prosperity and nature’s harmony.

In May 2021, a major assessment from the International Energy Agency expounded that there can be no further fossil fuel expansion in any country beyond 2021, if global climate goals are to be met in future.

The Independent’s Stop Fuelling the Climate Crises campaign is a kind of shelter against UK’s support for fossil fuels ahead of Cop26, a major climate summit being held in Glasgow in November 2021.

BP’s Greater Tortue Ahmeyim project will develop a new gas field 2.7km below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Senegal and Mauritania. Such a deep drilling project has never been attempted before in Africa, but previous research shows deep sea gas production can cause long-lasting damage to fragile ecosystems such as coral reefs.

The first 20-year phase of the project has already been approved, with drilling expected to produce gas in two years’ time. It is one of BP’s three developments in the pipeline for the West Africa region, where it hopes to operate for at least 30 years, only if it is able to obtain approval.

An environmental and social impact assessment (ESIA) carried out for the project, examined by The Independent, Unearthed and Source Material, states that there is a risk of eruption of a well used in the production process that could lead to a spill of condensate, a liquid byproduct of natural gas. Such event, if occurred, could prove lethal or damaging to the unique ecosystems surrounding the project site.

The area chosen for the project is close to key sites along the east Atlantic flyway, a major migration route for millions of birds travelling between the bottom of Africa and the Arctic. Birds using the route include Eurasian spoonbills, grey plovers and red knots.

Dr Mandy Joye, a professor in marine sciences at the University of Georgia, in an interview, told Unearthed: “This area is incredibly sensitive and largely unexplored – there are potentially novel species and there is a significant potential for biodiversity discovery there. There are all kinds of issues with gas projects, but condensates in particular make me really nervous. It’s hard to imagine a more nightmarish scenario in terms of clean up than a condensate spill as it’s almost invisible.

“There are a number of different ways that animals could suffer from a condensate release. I’d be really worried about impacts on corals – which are known to be sensitive to hydrocarbon exposure generally.”

The gas project is also just 5km away from Diawling National Park, which hosts 250 different bird species as well as monkeys, warthogs, and monitor lizards. It is a similar distance away from the marine protected area of Saint-Louis, a key site for local fishing and feeding whales and dolphins.

According to Sandra Kloff, a consultant marine time biologist, who has worked in the region for twenty five years, BP’s construction and drilling operations, could threaten these important wildlife hotspots, and the livelihoods of local fishing communities, without careful management.

In an interview with The Independent she said: ‘wildlife in the region already faces large threats from overfishing by international companies. Since the 1980s, it has been a total wild west for biodiversity off this northwest African coast despite scientific proof that this region is the most important feeding area for charismatic wildlife in the Atlantic Ocean – and in spite of the fact that these waters are home to the longest cold water coral mounds.’

An international group of ten scientists who had studied the area extensively – including Kloff had earlier written to BP about its environmental impact assessment, stating that some of its conclusions about its impact on the region’s biodiversity ‘were fundamentally wrong and ignored important science’.

To add to that, a report on the project by the Netherlands Commission for Environmental Assessment (NCEA) concluded that the project contained “gaps in information, analysis and justification of choices that make it difficult to appreciate the magnitude of the impacts and the relevance of mitigating measures proposed.”

To escape criticism, BP had pledged to reduce harm to biodiversity by committing to not establishing new oil and gas operations in UNESCO world heritage sites, or in nature reserves that meet a set of specific criteria. However, its Greater Tortue Ahmeyim project, does not ply to these rules.

It seems that more fossil fuel extraction is only going to expose communities to more harm, undermining the renewable energy investment which is poised to lift millions of people out of poverty.

In an interview with The Independent, a BP spokesperson revealed: “We want to help conserve the marine ecosystem in Mauritania and Senegal and the project’s environment and social impact assessment was approved by the governments and regulators of both Mauritania and Senegal when the project was sanctioned for development.”

The spokesperson added that BP was currently developing an additional biodiversity action plan, known as GTA Biodiversity Action Plan, for the project alongside scientists and other stakeholders.

The plan would most likely integrate the latest scientific data, and allow the oil drilling giant to identify and implement appropriate biodiversity-related mitigation and management measures for the project.

The company wants to set up an independent scientific panel of national and international scientists, for peer review of the existing plans, reserved for monitoring emissions from the first phase of the Greater Tortue Ahmeyim project, which will be included in BP’s climate targets.


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