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ReconAfrica, a Canadian petroleum exploration company, announced in August 2020 that it is planning to embark on oil and gas drilling projects in a protected area in Africa that supplies the Okavango Delta region in Botswana with water, threatening endangered wildlife and communities living in the area. 

ReconAfrica has acquired the rights for oil drilling in more than 35 000 sq km of north-east Namibia and north-west Botswana, along the banks of the Okavango River in the Delta region in the newly-proclaimed Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area. The area is larger than Belgium and ReconAfrica says that it could hold up to 31 billion barrels of crude oil- more than the US’ consumption in four years if consumption remained the same as in 2019. Fracking also seems to be a part of the company’s plans. 

While the US is the largest oil and gas producer in the world, it has created massive problems for the environment; hydraulic fracturing has caused poor air and water quality, community health and safety concerns, long-term economic issues and environmental crises like habitat loss. 

Along with the conservation area, the license covers 11 separate community nature concessions areas, one World Heritage site and part of the five-country Kaza Park- the largest protected area in southern Africa. It also includes the last refuge of the San people with a future drill site near the World Heritage site of Tsodilo Hills in Botswana.

Chris Brown, CEO of the Namibian Chamber of the Environment, says that he is not aware of the project and that any project such as this should have gone through environmental review and permitting processes. He says, “There needs to be public consultation. We monitor all the adverts that come out in the newspaper, and we monitor all the adverts that come out around EIAs (Environmental Impact Assessments) and we haven’t picked this up at all.” 

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According to the National Geographic, experts who have reviewed the Namibian EIAs for the test wells have pointed to “serious problems” with the way they were carried out. They pointed to a lack of physical assessments of fauna and flora and to the possible effects on local communities and other people, on archaeological sites, and on groundwater and surface water. They said that the assessment, consisting only of desktop studies without any fieldwork, is not sufficient to justify the proposed drilling. 

Environmental Concern

The area is home to Africa’s largest migrating elephant herd as well as endangered African painted dogs, sable antelope and rare flora. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), ReconAfrica’s license covers the territories of seven endangered animal species, including the grey crowned crane and the African wild dog, and four critically endangered animals, including the black rhinoceros and white-backed vulture. It’s also home to 20 other species listed as “vulnerable,” including Temminck’s pangolin and the martial eagle. It is also an economic powerhouse, bringing in around USD$32 million a year in sustainable tourism revenue. 

Temminck’s Pangolin (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

More importantly, the Okavango River, in the north of the potential fracking and oil drilling zone, is the sole provider of water to the Okavango Delta, Botswana’s most visited tourist destination. The area supports more than a million people with food, employment and fresh water.

Infrastructure for oil and gas drilling involves the construction of roads, pipelines and buildings that “could all negatively affect important animal habitat, migratory pathways and biodiversity,” according to the WWF. Fracking is of particular concern because it requires large amounts of water and can cause earthquakes, pollute water, release greenhouse gases and lead to cancer and other birth defects. For wildlife, fracking can poison the food chain, destroy habitat and cause mass die-offs of fish and other aquatic species. 

However, Namibia’s Ministry of Mines and Energy is emphasising the potential positive effects, saying that the “the socioeconomic impacts of exploratory drilling will result in the employment of locals” and many other benefits, such as new water wells for communities near the proposed drill sites. The Namibian government holds a 10% stake in ReconAfrica’s oil and gas development.

There are mixed messages being communicated within this project, proving that either the Namibian government is being lied to by ReconAfrica or it doesn’t know the full scope of the project. The government says that it has not given the company permission to frack, however ReconAfrica says that it’s entitled to a 25-year production license

Implications for Communities and Wildlife

The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that it takes about 1.5 million gallons of water to frack a single oil and gas well; ReconAfrica says that it ultimately hopes to drill hundreds of wells in the Kavango Basin. 

This has serious implications for the food security of the country. According to the UN, Namibia cannot feed itself; its farms support about 70% of its people, and the lands under ReconAfrica’s drilling license have more than 600 working farms, some irrigated with water from the Okavango River. Drilling here could further impact this fragile food supply. 

The company plans to begin “test” drilling as soon as this or next month.

Featured image by: Flickr

The Trump administration has announced that it will open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling, which will allow oil and gas rights to be auctioned off in one of the country’s iconic places for wildlife by December 2021. The refuge has remained an oasis for wildlife thanks to protections put in place 60 years ago, and this represents yet another blow to lobbyists calling for the administration to reduce fossil fuel consumption in the face of the climate crisis.

Should we drill for oil and natural gas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is estimated to sit above billions of barrels of oil, but the 19 million acre landscape is home to polar bears, waterfowl, migrating caribou and Arctic foxes. Overall, the refuge is home to over 270 species, including the world’s remaining Southern Beaufort Sea polar bears, 250 musk oxen and 300 000 snow geese, according to EcoWatch.

The Trump administration plans to open 1.6 million acres to drilling, moving forward with a 2017 Budget bill passed by a Republican-led congress. 

Under the 2017 law, the federal government must conduct two lease sales of 400 000 acres each by December 2024. The administration estimates that drilling could begin in roughly eight years and that the operations could last for about half a century. 

The Department of the Interior says that it has completed all the required reviews and intends to start selling leases to the land soon, expressing belief that the first lease sale could happen by the end of the year. It calls the leases “a new chapter in American energy independence.” 

According to research from thinktank Centers for American Progress, the drilling would emit more than 4.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions, equivalent to roughly 75% of the country’s annual emissions. 

The Trump administration has expanded oil and gas drilling, weakened gas mileage standards and rolled back methane emissions standards, among other measures in recent months. 

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The Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management concluded that establishing a network of well pads and pipelines for drilling would not pose a threat to the wildlife living in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. However, the plan calls for the construction of as many as four airstrips and major well pads, over 280km of roads, vertical supports for pipelines, a seawater treatment plant and a barge landing and storage site. 

Adam Kolton, executive director of the Alaska’s Wilderness League, says, “This is our nation’s last great wilderness. Nowhere else in the five-nation polar north do you have such abundant and diverse wildlife.”

Kolton adds that his organisation, as well as environmentalists will take the administration to court. “We will continue to fight this at every turn,” he says. “Any oil company that would seek to drill in the Arctic Refuge will face enormous reputational, legal and financial risks.”

Featured image by: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters

It was one of the worst environmental disasters the world has witnessed. Ten years ago, on April 20, 2010, the BP Deepwater Horizon exploratory rig exploded, killing 11 people and initiating the largest oil spill in the history of the United States. Millions of gallons of oil spewed into the Gulf of Mexico, killing fish, dolphins, crabs, sea turtles, birds, and countless other marine, wetland and coastal plants and animals, underscoring the environmental degradation that oil drilling can cause.

Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: A Summary 

When the leak was finally contained, 87 days later, an estimated 4.9 million barrels (480,000 cubic meters, or 210 million gallons) of oil had spilled, reaching 2,100 kilometers (1,300 miles) of shoreline and causing untold damage to the Gulf Coast region.

A newly published report by Oceana, Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to protecting oceans, looks back at how this spill happened, the resulting ecological and economic impacts, and if this catastrophe has changed government or oil industry approaches to offshore drilling.

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oil drilling
Response crews battle the blaze of the off-shore oil rig, Deepwater Horizon on April 21, 2010 (Source: EPI2oh).

Oceana reviewed government documents, media coverage, scientific studies, and nonprofit reports. It also interviewed residents, scientists, business owners and policy experts across the Gulf Coast region. What the organization found was troubling.

What caused the BP oil spill?

Poor government oversight and inadequate safety culture paved the way for the BP Deepwater Horizon explosion. Now, a decade later, it appears these conditions, the prerequisites for disaster, have not improved.

“Offshore drilling is still as dirty and dangerous as it was 10 years ago,” said Diane Hoskins, Oceana campaign director.

The U.S. government estimates that as much as 1.4 million barrels (227,000 m3, or 60 million gallons) of oil still remain in the Gulf of Mexico, and that the total economic damages have surpassed $1 billion. One study estimates the damage done to the Gulf of Mexico’s natural resources are around $17.2 billion. Both the oil and the removal efforts had negative effects on the health of workers and coastal communities. Marine ecosystems have yet to fully recover.

“It was an entire Gulf of Mexico-wide event,” Tracey Sutton of Nova Southeastern University said. “Nobody was ready for this scale of pollution … As far as we know, the actual impact of the spill is not over yet.”

The spill launched what is recognized as the longest marine mammal die-off in the Gulf of Mexico. For five years after the spill, 75% of all dolphin pregnancies failed in the affected areas. In the first few months of 2011, 186 bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) were found dead, nearly half of these were perinatal, or near birth.  The population of one of the most endangered whale species in the world, the Gulf of Mexico Bryde’s whale (Balaenoptera edeni), was reduced by 22%.

More than 600 sea turtles were found dead, three-quarters of them Kemp’s ridley turtles (Lepidochelys kempii), classified as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List. Scientists estimated that 170,000 sea turtles have died as a result of the oil spill and oil spill cleanup efforts.

An estimated 800,000 birds, 8.3 million oysters and trillions of larval fish and invertebrates were also killed.

Much of the oil from the spill settled on the ocean floor. Large expanses of the ocean floor surrounding the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig have been described as empty and void of life.

“The fact that you don’t see it [oil] on the beaches, or you don’t see it floating around … doesn’t mean that it’s gone,” Clifton Nunnally, a research scientist with the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON), who has been studying the Gulf of Mexico for 20 years, said in the Oceana report. “It means that it’s moved to a new ecosystem. And it’s a system that operates on the order of millennia, not just years or decades. So, the recovery for a deep-sea ecosystem like this could be a long-term process.”

More than 100,000 people were involved in containing and cleaning up the spill. Many of them were exposed to crude oil, which is toxic.  The chemical dispersants used to clean up the oil also resulted in respiratory, skin and eye problems for exposed workers. According to one study, oil spill cleanup workers had heart issues and blood disorders seven years after exposure.

Communities of color were particularly hard hit, “as these experience systemic oppression such as environmental racism,” according to an NAACP report. These coastal communities were still recovering from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the costliest tropical cycle on record, and this new disaster struck a hard blow for people who “already suffered from compromised economic status, displacement and substandard housing, fragile mental and physical health status, and socio-cultural disruption.”

“They failed our people,” Clarice Friloux, the outreach coordinator for the United Houma Nation during the spill, told Oceana. “At one point, I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this could kill off the whole generation of Native Americans living off the coast of Louisiana.’”

In 2016, the court approved an $8.8 billion settlement with BP to trustees including, federal agencies, states and Indian tribes, for natural resource injuries connected to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Hundreds of spills still occur in U.S. waters every year. The oil pipelines in place in the Gulf of Mexico alone could circle the Earth.

“If anything, another disaster is more likely today as the oil industry drills deeper and farther offshore,” Hoskins said. “Instead of learning lessons from the BP disaster, President Trump is proposing to radically expand offshore drilling, while dismantling the few protections put in place as a result of the catastrophic blowout.”

The Trump administration has rolled back regulations on offshore drilling. The changes, described by the U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement as “amending, revising, or removing current regulatory provisions that create unnecessary burdens on stakeholders,” lessen the testing requirements for blowout preventers. A blowout preventer malfunction is cited as the cause of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Oceana has made several recommendations to the current U.S. administration, including urging Trump to halt efforts to expand offshore drilling, seek transformative change in the culture of safety in the industry, and to deny pending seismic permits for oil and gas. They recommend that congress put in place a moratorium on offshore drilling expansion and incentivize renewable energy.

“I saw firsthand the devastation, whether it was loss of livelihood, loss of culture, loss of land, health. We saw it and lived it on a daily basis,” said Brenda Dardar Robichaux, former principal chief of United Houma Nation. “The fact that BP could come in and do this to a community and really not suffer any consequences was just criminal.”

Featured image by: Office of Response and Restoration

This article was originally published on Mongabay, written by Liz Kimbrough, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org. 

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