DRC, Ghana, Senegal…Africa steams ahead with plans to develop gas reserves, despite opposition  

By Tom Collins in Dakar

Posted on Friday, 14 October 2022 12:39
DRC's President Felix Tshisekedi speaks during the COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, Britain, November 2, 2021. Paul Ellis/Pool via REUTERS

Africa is steaming ahead with plans to develop its gas reserves, despite high-level opposition and environmental concerns ahead of the upcoming COP27 in Egypt in November.

One of the most controversial projects under scrutiny is the DRC’s decision to auction off 30 oil and gas blocks worth $600bn in the Congo Basin – a vast rainforest spanning multiple countries known as the ‘lungs of Africa’.

John Kerry, the US climate envoy, urged the DRC last week to abandon its plans to auction off some of the blocks in sensitive environmental areas at a pre-COP27 in the capital city of Kinshasa.

He asked the government to “withdraw some tracts to protect the forest”, referencing “critical peatlands” that could release thousands of tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere if disturbed.

The clash of opinion reflects growing discord between Africa and the international community about whether the continent should develop its gas reserves and if Western nations have the right to demand such a feat after developing almost exclusively on the back of fossil fuels.

The thorny issue looks set to dominate the November meeting in Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh, which has been billed as ‘Africa’s COP’.

“John Kerry going against the project in the DRC is really wrong,” NJ Ayuk, executive chairman of the African Energy Chamber tells The Africa Report.

“It’s really hypocritical when some Western nations are opening up coal plants. They are saying that we should not develop gas to turbo charge our economies while they are going back to coal. There’s a huge hint of colonialism there”.

Gas to develop economies

Along with the DRC, African leaders from a range of countries, including Senegal, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, have ramped up support for gas in recent months following large fossil fuel discoveries in the Atlantic Ocean – positioning West Africa as one of the continent’s leading energy hubs.

Senegal’s President Macky Sall used a climate meeting in Rotterdam last month to put forward the case for African gas, arguing that it is essential to develop sluggish economies.

“We need a baseload of energy to help us support our economies,” he said. “We cannot leave Africa to have renewable energies, no countries can develop only with renewable energy”.

Right now the African position is ‘Drill baby drill’

In 2017, British oil major BP and US operator Kosmos Energy discovered an estimated 15trn cubic feet of recoverable gas in the maritime area that borders Mauritania.

The discovery led to the development of the $4.8bn Greater Tortue Ahmeyim (GTA) LNG project, shared between Mauritania and Senegal, with production slated for Q3 next year.

In Ghana, British company Tullow Oil discovered a new gas reserve in June, which is estimated to hold between 1.5 to 2trn cubic feet of offshore gas.

Italian hydrocarbon giant ENI announced a major oil and gas discovery in Côte d’Ivoire this year, increasing last year’s find of an estimated 2 billion barrels of oil and 2.4trn cubic feet of gas by up to 25%.

President Alassane Ouattara said he wants Côte d’Ivoire to become a major oil producer, showing no signs that the West African country will not develop its oil on the back of environmental concerns.

Many of Africa’s gas advocates argue that it is the cleanest and most effective way to bring power to millions of people. “There are 600 million people without electricity in Africa,” says Ayuk.

“The idea of leaving our natural resources in the ground is not going to be accepted, especially going into COP27. Right now the African position is ‘Drill baby drill’. We need our natural gas to develop”.

The gas is expected to be used as a transition fuel to renewables by providing the means to rapidly speed up investment in cleaner forms of energy.

Nigeria is the biggest oil producer in Africa and 50% of the population do not have access to electricity

Ayuk says the West is also sending “mixed messages” by asking African countries to scale down on gas while turning to African producers to diversify away from Russia.

“Demand remains high, and it is driven largely by energy consumption and needs in more developed nations,” he says.

Most of the carbon that is produced in Africa will end up being exported and burnt in energy-hungry markets across the world.

In terms of the environment, Ayuk claims that Africa’s carbon emissions will only rise by 1% even if all its gas projects come online within the next few years.

As it stands, Africa accounts for the smallest share of global greenhouse emissions between 3% to 4%.

Environmental concerns

However, despite the fact Africa is not responsible for climate change, it is the most vulnerable continent to the negative effects of global warming.

Research shows that parts of Africa are warming up twice as fast as other regions in the world – putting millions of people at risk of drought, famine and displacement.

The environmental organisation Greenpeace has repeatedly lobbied African countries to scale back on gas projects, citing widespread environmental concerns.

The group released a report saying more than 1 million people could be exposed to pollution and disease as a direct result of the oil and gas projects in the DRC.

“The auctioning of the blocks ha[s] been done without any environmental assessment, nothing has been done,” Irene Wabiwa Betoko, project leader for the Congo Basin, tells The Africa Report.

“Around 80% of the population in Goma depends on Lake Kivu for drinking water and domestic needs. If the water is polluted due to the projects there, it will have a huge impact on health in the local area”.

There’s no reason to expect that gas would suddenly light up the households. All of it will be exported to Europe

Another major concern is that Africa will increase its carbon emissions but the millions of people without access to electricity will not benefit, contrary to opposing claims.

“Nigeria is the biggest oil producer in Africa and 50% of the population do not have access to electricity,” György Dallos, global campaign strategist at Greenpeace, tells The Africa Report.

“There’s no reason to expect that gas would suddenly light up the households. All of it will be exported to Europe.”

This raises concerns about who will really benefit from gas projects in Africa.

Sceptics argue that large gas projects will only benefit those in power – often through corruption and large kickbacks from international oil companies.

Macky Sall’s brother, Aliou Sall, resigned as the head of a state-run savings fund after a BBC investigation alleged he had been involved in improprieties relating to a natural gas deal involving BP.

A judge dismissed the claims a year later, but the case has fuelled speculation that Senegal’s gas wealth will primarily benefit the country’s ruling cabal.

Others argue that leaders in countries like Senegal and the DRC are keen to get projects up and running as both African nations face important elections next year.

“They are looking for very quick money,” says Betoko. “They can get immediate capital in terms of taxes, and the bonuses in the auction documents. It’s a key reason why they are pushing the projects”.

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