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As Congo seeks to expand drilling, some communities worry pollution will worsen

SAM MEDNICK
February 29, 2024

MOANDA, Congo (AP) -- The oil drills that loom down the road from Adore Ngaka's home remind him daily of everything he's lost. The extraction in his village in western Congo has polluted the soil, withered his crops and forced the family to burn through savings to survive, he said.

Pointing to a stunted ear of corn in his garden, the 27-year-old farmer says it's about half the size he got before oil operations expanded nearly a decade ago in his village of Tshiende.

"It's bringing us to poverty," he said.

Congo, a mineral-rich nation in central Africa, is thought to have significant oil reserves, too. Drilling has so far been confined to a small territory on the Atlantic Ocean and offshore, but that's expected to change if the government successfully auctions 30 oil and gas blocks spread around the country. Leaders say economic growth is essential for their impoverished people, but some communities, rights groups and environmental watchdogs warn that expanded drilling will harm the landscape and human health.

Since the French-British hydrocarbon company, Perenco, began drilling in Moanda territory in 2000, residents say pollution has worsened, with spills and leaks degrading the soil and flaring -- the intentional burning of natural gas near drilling sites -- fouling the air they breathe. And the Congolese government exerts little oversight, they say.

Perenco said it abides by international standards in its extraction methods, that they don't pose any health risks and that any pollution has been minor. The company also said it offered to support a power plant that would make use of the natural gas and thus reduce flaring. The government did not respond to questions about the proposed plant.

Congo's minister overseeing oil and gas, Didier Budimbu, said the government is committed to protecting the environment.

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Congo is home to most of the Congo Basin rainforest, the world's second-biggest, and most of the world's largest tropical peatland, made up of partially decomposed wetlands plant material. Together, both capture huge amounts of carbon dioxide -- about 1.5 billion tons a year, or about 3% of global emissions. More than a dozen of the plots up for auction overlap with protected areas in peatlands and rainforests, including the Virunga National Park, which is home to some of the world's rarest gorillas.

The government said the 27 oil blocks available have an estimated 22 billion barrels. Environmental groups say that auctioning more land to drill would have consequences both in Congo and abroad.

"Any new oil and gas project, anywhere in the world, is fueling the climate and nature crisis that we're in," said Mbong Akiy Fokwa Tsafak, program director for Greenpeace Africa. She said Perenco's operations have done nothing to mitigate poverty and instead degraded the ecosystem and burdened the lives of communities.

Environmental activists said Congo has strong potential to instead develop renewable energy, including solar, as well as small-scale hydropower. It's the world's largest producer of cobalt, a key component for batteries in electric vehicles and other products essential to the global energy transition, although cobalt mining comes with its own environmental and human risks.

Budimbu said now is not the time to move away from fossil fuels when the country is still reliant on them. He said fossil fuel dependency will be phased out in the long term.

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Rich in biodiversity, Moanda abuts the Mangrove National Park -- the country's only marine protected area. Perenco has been under scrutiny for years, with local researchers, aid groups and Congo's Senate making multiple reports of pollution dating back more than a decade. Two civil society organizations, Sherpa and Friends of the Earth France, filed a lawsuit in 2022 accusing Perenco of pollution caused by the oil extraction; that suit is still pending.

During a rare visit by international media to the oil fields, including two villages near drilling, The Associated Press spoke with dozens of residents, local officials and rights organizations. Residents say drilling has inched closer to their homes and they have seen pipes break regularly, sending oil into the soil. They blame air and ground pollution for making it hard to cultivate crops and causing health problems such as skin rashes and respiratory infections.

They said Perenco has responded quickly to leaks and spills but failed to address root problems.

AP journalists visited drilling sites, some just a few hundred meters from homes, that had exposed and corroding pipes. They also saw at least four locations that were flaring natural gas, a technique that manages pressure by burning off the gas that is often used when it is impractical or unprofitable to collect. AP did not see any active spill sites.

Between 2012 and 2022 in Congo, Perenco flared more than 2 billion cubic meters of natural gas -- a carbon footprint equivalent to that of about 20 million Congolese, according to the Environmental Investigative Forum, a global consortium of environmental investigative journalists. The group analyzed data from Skytruth, a group that uses satellite imagery to monitor threats to the planet's natural resources.

Flaring of natural gas, which is mostly methane, emits carbon dioxide, methane and black soot and is damaging to health, according to the International Energy Agency.

In the village of Kinkazi, locals told AP that Perenco buried chemicals in a nearby pit for years and they seeped into the soil and water. They displayed photos of what they said were toxic chemicals before they were buried and took reporters to the site where they said they'd been discarded. It took the community four years of protests and strikes before Perenco disposed of the chemicals elsewhere, they said.

Most villagers were reluctant to allow their names to be used, saying they feared a backlash from a company that is a source of casual labor jobs. Minutes after AP reporters arrived in one village, a resident said he received a call from a Perenco employee asking the purpose of the meeting.

One who was willing to speak was Gertrude Tshonde, a farmer, who said Perenco began dumping chemicals near Kinkazi in 2018 after a nearby village refused to allow it.

"People from Tshiende called us and asked if we were letting them throw waste in our area," Tshonde said. "They said the waste was not good because it spreads underground and destroys the soil."

Tshonde said her farm was behind the pit where chemicals were being thrown and her cassava began to rot.

AP could not independently verify that chemicals had been buried at the site.

Perenco spokesman Mark Antelme said the company doesn't bury chemicals underground and that complaints about the site near Kinkazi were related to old dumping more than 20 years ago by a predecessor company. Antelme also said Perenco hasn't moved operations closer to people's homes. Instead, he said, some communities have gradually built closer to drilling sites.

Antelme also said the company's flaring does not release methane into the atmosphere.

Perenco said it contributes significantly to Moanda and the country. It's the sole energy provider in Moanda and invests about $250 million a year in education, road construction, training programs for medical staff and easier access to health care in isolated communities, the company said.

But residents say some of those benefits are overstated. A health clinic built by Perenco in one village has no medicine and few people can afford to pay to see the doctor, they said.

And when Perenco compensates for oil leak damages, locals say it's not enough.

Tshonde, the farmer, said she was given about $200 when an oil spill doomed her mangoes, avocado and maize eight years ago. But her losses were more than twice that. Lasting damage to her land from Perenco's operations has forced her to seek other means of income, such as cutting trees to sell as charcoal.

Many other farmers whose land has been degraded are doing the same, and tree cover is disappearing, she said.

Budimbu, the minister of hydrocarbons, said Congo's laws prohibit drilling near homes and fields and oil operators are required to take the necessary measures to prevent and clean up oil pollution. But he didn't specify what the government was doing in response to community complaints.

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Congo has struggled to secure bidders since launching the auction in July 2022. Three companies -- two American and one Canadian -- moved on three methane gas blocks in Lake Kivu, on the border with Rwanda. The government said in May that they were about to close those tenders, but did not respond to AP's questions in January about whether those deals were finalized.

There are no known confirmed deals on the 27 oil blocks, and the deadline for expressions of interest has been extended through this year. Late last year, Perenco withdrew from bidding on two blocks in the province near where it currently operates. The company didn't respond to questions from AP about why it withdrew, but Africa Intelligence reported that Perenco had found the blocks to have insufficient potential.

Perenco also didn't respond when asked whether it was pursuing any other blocks.

Environmental experts say bidding may be slow because the country is a hard place to operate with rampant conflict, especially in the east where violence is surging and where some of the blocks are located.

Local advocacy groups say the government should fix problems with Perenco before bringing in other companies.

"We first need to see changes with the company we have here before we can trust other(s)," said Alphonse Khonde, the coordinator of the Group of Actors and Actions for Sustainable Development.

Congo also has a history of corruption. Little of its mineral wealth has trickled down in a country that is one of the world's five poorest, with more than 60% of its 100 million people getting by on less than $2.15 a day, according to the World Bank.

And some groups have criticized what they see as lack of transparency on the process of offering blocks for auction, which amounts to "local communities being kept in the dark over plans to exploit their lands and resources," said Joe Eisen, executive director of the Rainforest Foundation UK.

Some communities where the government has failed to provide jobs and basic services say they have few options but to gamble on allowing more drilling.

In Kimpozia village, near one of the areas up for auction, some 150 people live nestled in the forest without a school or hospital. Residents must hike steep hills and travel on motorbike for five hours to reach the nearest health clinic and walk several hours to school. Louis Wolombassa, the village chief, said the village needs road-building and other help.

"If they come and bring what we want, let them drill," he said.

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Follow Sam Mednick on X: @sammednick

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The Associated Press' climate and environmental coverage receives financial support from multiple private foundations. AP is solely responsible for all content. Find AP's standards for working with philanthropies, a list of supporters and funded coverage areas at AP.org.

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