On protected areas, the conservation of poverty

Earlier this week, Buckingham Palace announced the death of Queen Elizabeth II. We begin this column by sending our condolences to the British Royal Family, King Charles and the people of the United Kingdom. Farewell Your Majesty.

The same week, the United Kingdom has a new Prime Minister, Liz Truss. During the leadership campaign, Ms Truss repeatedly stated that increasing domestic energy supply would be part of her aim to bring prices down and in her first parliamentary appearance she reiterated that the solution at current high energy prices is the extraction of more oil from the North Sea.

As one of the oldest hydrocarbon-producing basins in the world, the North Sea has been a major contributor to European economies for 50 years. The North Sea is also one of the most productive areas in the world for fish and has a huge fishing community. The total biomass of all fish in the North Sea is estimated at around 10 million tonnes; 230 species of fish and 31 species of seabirds breed along its coast, in addition to around 16 species of whales in the North Sea. There are a number of endangered plants and animals in the North Sea.

Despite this, the decision to develop North Sea oil assets is not limited to the UK; this year, Norway issued 53 new licenses to drill for oil in the North Sea. The need for energy security and lower energy prices cannot be disputed.

Indeed, the German government coalition which includes the Green Party uses coal – the dirtiest fossil fuel – to power German industry. This coalition includes German MP Kathrin Hennerberger who has been outspoken in her criticism of the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP).

Ironically, as the protected habitats of the North Sea are increasingly explored, the Western press is still concerned about EACOP. The latest attack on EACOP comes from National Geographic, in an article titled “Economic Lifeline or Climate Peril” where National Geographic informed its readers that on a map, EACOP “looks like an elongated frying pan” and that he will cross “savannahs traversed by lions and elephants”.

Unless our friends at National Geographic have their own EACOP itinerary that has lions and elephants, that’s wrong. They join other leading Western publications like African Business Review which have alleged that EACOP would “rip 230 rivers”. Clearly, there is an industry dedicated to manufacturing EACOP information.

Ms. Truss is right about the quick fix to the current global energy crisis, it’s more oil production. Upstream fossil fuel development is vital to meeting the planet’s energy needs and pipelines are the accepted means of achieving this. Al Jazeera recently reported that at least 2,381 oil and gas pipelines are operating globally in 162 countries. Of these, the United States has the longest network of pipelines, followed by Russia, Canada and China. The EACOP gas pipeline would cover a section of 1,433 km, or about 0.1% of the global gas pipeline network.

Also, it is important to look at the resources available for oil and gas exploration in a holistic way. In his award-winning book, The Plundered Planet, Oxford researcher Paul Collier pointed out that the world’s rich countries occupy a quarter of the earth’s surface. He said the value of their known “underground assets” (oil, gas, coal and minerals) is $114,000 per square kilometer of land.

Africa, which occupies another quarter of the earth’s surface, has only $23,000 in known assets underground. Why? Because Africa remains terribly unexplored.

As the rich world develops its resources in some of the world’s most ecologically protected areas, we are advised to shut down even the most responsible projects because of imaginary lions. It is clear that we are dealing with an industry that works hard to preserve poverty. The first industry we need to dismantle and shut down, long before we shut down the oil industry, is this poverty conservation industry.

Elison Karuhanga is a lawyer and partner at Kampala Associated Advocates

Edward N. Arrington