Economic lifeline or climate peril? East African pipeline is a new flashpoint

The 900-mile pipeline would bring needed revenue to Uganda and Tanzania. But it would disrupt thousands of lives and key wildlife habitat—to say nothing of its climate impact.

By Jonathan W. Rosen
Published 12 Sept 2022, 12:34 BST
An aerial view of a new fuel storage complex on the shores of Lake Victoria in Entebbe, Uganda. The facility is expected to play a key role in the region's oil infrastructure, increasing Uganda's oil storage capacity and reducing freight costs, as transportation of petroleum products is moved from roads to the lake.
Photograph by Luke Dray, Getty Images

On a map, the proposed pipeline resembles an elongated frying pan, unfolding in a giant arc across the eastern third of Africa. The oil wells that will feed it begin a short trip down the Nile from Uganda’s Murchison Falls, where the world’s longest river crashes through a narrow gorge with a force that causes the surrounding earth to tremble.

The pipeline itself—planned for completion by 2025-—will then plunge south, underground, through chimpanzee-inhabited forests, across the equator, and under rivers and papyrus swamps that drain into Africa’s largest lake, Victoria. Over the Tanzanian border, it will veer east and traverse small towns, family farms, and savannahs roamed by lions and elephants before reaching the coral reefs and mangroves of the turquoise Swahili Coast. From there, the first barrels of Uganda’s waxy crude—similar in consistency to shoe polish—will be loaded onto tankers and shipped out to sea.

To the energy firms and governments behind the 897-mile East African Crude Oil Pipeline, it is the long-awaited final step in the launch of a new energy frontier. For Uganda, which has been itching to join the ranks of oil exporters since commercially viable deposits were discovered in 2006, the £4.2 billion pipeline—known as EACOP—represents a future boost to the national treasury and billions in related investments. For Total Energies, the French multinational corporation developing Uganda’s largest oil field, and majority owner of the pipeline, it will enable the flow of an essential global commodity—at a lower cost and with fewer greenhouse gas emissions than a typical project of its kind.

Photograph by Luke Dray, Getty Images

Climate activists across the region, though, disagree with such an optimistic assessment. Not only, they warn, would pumping out Uganda’s oil have “disastrous consequences” for people and wildlife along the pipeline route, it also is simply too late to be opening up new places to fossil fuel exploitation. The era of oil, they say, should be on the wane, not rise: The International Energy Agency (IEA) warned in a 2021 report that limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius to prevent climate change’s most destructive impacts would require new oil and gas development to stop immediately. In the case of the EACOP project, opponents are especially adamant, given the threats that oil rigs and a pipeline filled with toxic crude pose to communities, water supplies, and the region’s biodiversity. 

The most vocal opposition is coming from a grassroots movement, #StopEACOP, which is waging a global campaign to convince would-be financiers not to fund the project. Like the activists who battled for a decade to stop the United States’ Keystone XL pipeline, planned to transport oil from Alberta’s tar sands to refineries on the Gulf Coast, they’ve focused their efforts on stopping the Uganda-Tanzania pipeline because it represents the wider project’s biggest vulnerability: getting the oil to market. Although their prospect of a win may be unlikely, they’re keeping up the fight, convinced their message will reverberate beyond this one project.

“Without this pipeline, there’s no oil extraction in Uganda,” says Omar Elmawi, a 34-year-old lawyer who coordinates #StopEACOP from his home in Kenya, Uganda’s neighbour to the east. “If we stop it, we believe it will send a powerful signal that it’s time to move beyond new fossil fuel development.”

A new frontier

For Uganda, a landlocked country of 48 million people home to terrain ranging from the snow-capped Rwenzori Mountains to Lake Victoria’s tropical shores, designs on oil production aren’t new. Fishermen on Lake Albert, which straddles Uganda’s western border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, have reported natural oil seepages near its shores for generations. But it was only in 2006 that Tullow Oil, a small Anglo-Irish prospecting company, discovered 1.4 billion barrels of commercially viable reserves—enough to turn the country into one of Africa’s top ten producers. 

Uganda’s government had hoped the oil would begin flowing a decade ago, but disagreements with companies over taxes and infrastructure, plus uncertainty over the pipeline’s route, stalled the project for years. In 2013, after Kenya discovered oil reserves of its own, the two countries signed a deal to build a slightly longer pipeline to the Kenyan coastal town of Lamu. Three years later, Uganda withdrew, citing concerns over cost and security, including the presence in Kenya of the Somali terrorist group Al Shabab.

Uganda and Tanzania began negotiations on an alternative route to the port of Tanga, just south of the Kenyan border. They struck a deal in 2020, months after Total, the world’s fifth largest oil and gas firm by revenue, bought out Tullow’s stake in its Uganda fields. Last February, Total signed a “final investment decision” on the pipeline with the two governments and China’s CNOOC, which is developing a smaller series of wells along the Ugandan shore of Lake Albert. Project officials expect construction to begin next year.

Uganda plans to refine some of the oil for the local and regional market, but most of it—an estimated 216,000 barrels per day—will travel through the 24-inch diameter underground pipeline for export. Since Uganda’s crude is semi-solid, it will be heated, via solar power, to 50°C (122°F.) If completed, EACOP would surpass India’s 416-mile Mangala pipeline as the longest heated crude oil pipeline in the world.

Economic independence

By global standards, Uganda’s planned output is modest. Oil demand in 2022 hovers around 100 million barrels per day, more than 400 times the amount Uganda would supply to international markets. Yet in the capital, Kampala, officials anticipate a welcome boost. Ali Ssekatawa, director of legal and corporate affairs at the Petroleum Authority of Uganda, which oversees the sector, expects the country to generate between £1.2 and £2.5 billion per year at peak production, depending on global prices. Given that the government collects roughly £3.8 billion a year in domestic taxes, those sums are considerable—enough, he says, to help Uganda wean off foreign aid and to “give us economic independence.” Refining some of the oil at home, he adds, would boost energy security and eliminate risks posed by currency fluctuations.

While Ssekatawa says Uganda’s oil windfall could help fill gaps in public services like health and education, some critics question whether that will happen. A survey last year by a government watchdog suggests the country loses 40 percent of its annual budget to corruption. Others warn the oil reserves could grow less lucrative over time if the green energy transition leads to a drop in oil demand and an associated fall in prices—though this is hardly a given. To meet global climate goals under the scenario envisaged by the IEA, oil use would need to fall 75 percent by 2050. Yet the IEA concluded that under policies in place or announced by governments, oil demand at mid-century would be 15 percent higher than it was in 2020. 

Murchison Falls National Park, on the shores of Albert Lake, is Uganda's largest protected area and home to 76 animal species, many of them threatened. Ten of 31 drill pads for oil wells supplying the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) will be located within the park's boundaries. When the 897-mile pipeline is completed, planned for 2025, it will be the world's longest heated crude oil pipeline and transport oil from landlocked Uganda across Tanzania to the port city of Tanga on the Indian Ocean.
Photograph by Erik Sampers, Abaca, Sipa, AP Photo

Even if the move away from fossil fuels picks up pace, says David Doherty, head of oil demand research at Bloomberg New Energy Finance, prices wouldn’t necessarily tumble. Uganda, where shallow oil fields mean production costs are relatively cheap, could be an attractive source of crude even in a future of shrinking demand—especially given East Africa’s proximity, via the Indian Ocean, to refineries in Asia. “Despite the need for a pipeline, Uganda is in a pretty good location,” Doherty says.

Environmental threats

Uganda’s partners, Total and CNOOC, are hardly alone in their thirst for new resources: According to Global Witness, an international watchdog, the world’s 20 largest fossil fuel companies are projected to spend £451 billion to develop new oil fields by 2030. An analysis by Reuters in July suggests energy firms are considering oil and gas investments on the African continent worth a total of £85 billion. 

Few projects, however, impact so many sensitive environments. Ten of Total’s 31 well pads, where drilling takes place, will be within the boundaries of Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda’s largest protected area—where giraffes strut along the Nile and where elephants, decimated by poaching in much of Africa, are thriving. CNOOC’s wells will extract oil from underneath Lake Albert, which is known as a birdwatcher’s paradise and is home to vital fisheries. The pipeline itself, the World Wildlife Fund warns, could have “major impacts” on nearly 800 square miles of protected wildlife habitats, and a 250-mile stretch of the Lake Victoria basin, which more than 30 million people depend on for water and food production.

Although Total stresses that its operations in Murchison Falls account for less than one percent of the park’s land, a new road there leading to the oil wells has already led to conflicts. Elephants and buffalos, disturbed by the noise, have begun straying into nearby farms, trampling crops, according to Dickens Kamugisha, CEO of the Africa Institute for Energy Governance, a Kampala-based watchdog. Road building in the region, he adds, is also drawing land speculators and agricultural investors who’ve already “decimated” large swathes of nearby Budongo Forest, known for its mahogany trees and several hundred resident chimpanzees.

By the time oil begins flowing, more than 18,000 households will have ceded land to make way for project infrastructure. The lion’s share of residents will be affected by the pipeline, which will be buried along a 30-metre-wide (about 100 feet) corridor that will be cleared of all structures, trees, and crops. In both Uganda and Tanzania, compensation to residents will not include the value of improvements made since a 2018 assessment. Because of this, activists say that farmers along the route, already struggling to adapt to more erratic rainfall linked to climate change, have ceased planting cash crops that take longer to mature, like bananas, coffee, and sugar cane, and have shifted instead to subsistence crops like maize. The whole process, says Baraka Lenga, a representative of Green Faith, a U.S. based NGO, in Tanzania, has already made households “poorer and more vulnerable.”

Although transporting fuel via pipeline is generally safer than hauling it by road or rail, a leak or spill is hardly far fetched: The United States, according to Department of Transportation data, has recorded nearly 6,000 “significant” pipeline incidents in the past two decades—or roughly one per every 400 miles of its 2.5-million-mile oil and gas pipeline network. Third-party experts familiar with Uganda’s candlewax-like crude said its semi-solid qualities have some advantages. Crude in Utah’s Uinta basin has similar properties, and according to John Mackey, who heads the state’s Division of Water Quality, waxy oil from a ruptured pipeline would likely cool and harden quickly, buying time for a response. It would also dissolve fewer pollutants into water than a less viscous crude, he says, though it would still “leave a slick and have a sheen and be unhealthy for people and wildlife.”

Others warn of potential sabotage. In Nigeria, Africa’s largest oil producer, intentional damage to pipelines is one reason that several oil majors, including Total, have recently been selling their onshore assets.

“There’s no way Uganda and Tanzania will have capacity to secure every inch of the pipeline,” Kamugisha says.

Following the money

The fight to stop the pipeline dates to 2017, when a nonprofit working with communities near Lake Albert reached out to global partners for help. Unlike the activists fighting Keystone, who lobbied the U.S. government to reject a federal permit needed for the project, EACOP opponents have no government to take on. Uganda and Tanzania, which both own a 15 percent stake in the pipeline, are firmly on board.

Instead, #StopEACOP, which has grown to include more than 260 organisations, focused on the project’s corporate actors. Campaign members filed multiple lawsuits, disrupted shareholder meetings, and organised protests in cities across the globe.

Above all, they followed the money: 60 percent of the pipeline’s £4.2 billion cost, they learned, was to be financed through borrowing, which they sought to cut off at the source. Two of the movement’s core organisations, Inclusive Development International and Bank Track, drew up a list of institutions with a history of financing fossil fuel projects. The campaign then asked them for pledges to stay away from the project, posting responses on the #StopEACOP website. So far, 20 of 35 banks and 13 of 22 insurers have ruled out support.

“Most of these financial institutions have climate policies or at least want to make it look like they’re taking actions toward achieving net zero,” says Elmawi, who joined the fight against the pipeline last year after leading a successful effort to stop a coal plant near his hometown of Lamu.

The activists’ tactics aren’t without critics. In Uganda, some question why banks that have long supported fossil fuel projects in the West should pull the plug on a country whose contribution to the climate crisis has been miniscule. According to the World Bank, the average Ugandan emits less than a percent of the amount of C02 per year as the average American. 

As the Petroleum Authority’s Ssekatawa notes, the largest pipeline networks in the world lie beneath Europe and the United States. For Western institutions to reject one in Africa, he says, reeks of “modern day colonialism:” Instead of plundering resources, as happened following Europe’s “Scramble for Africa” in the late nineteenth century, he argues, the West’s cutting off of finance would prevent Uganda from using them itself. 

Even within Africa, Angelo Izama, a Ugandan researcher who’s working on a book about the country’s oil sector, believes Uganda has been unfairly singled out as a “poster child” for countries seeking to develop fossil fuels in the so-called age of net zero.

Despite the success of #StopEACOP so far, it faces an uphill struggle. As Elmawi notes, some of the banks that have pledged to avoid EACOP still finance Total directly. Three large institutions, South Africa’s Standard Bank, Japan’s SMBC, and China’s ICBC, remain key advisors to the project. In May, the Financial Times and Bureau for Investigative Journalism reported that the New York-based broker Marsh McLennan was attempting to arrange pipeline insurance. 

Although Bloomberg’s Doherty says some financing through debt is the norm, Total, which is valued at £109 billion, has the resources to finance the project itself. Some believe Uganda’s government, as a last resort, might take on a loan to fund it.

A warning for other projects?

Even if the pipeline does go forward, those fighting it believe the negative publicity could impact future investments. Part of the strategy, says Coleen Scott, who focuses on #StopEACOP at the human rights advocacy group Inclusive Development International, is to “give companies pursuing other fossil fuel projects pause.” 

How much oil this will help keep in the ground, though, isn’t clear. According to Izama, the noise surrounding the pipeline may indeed cause Western oil financiers to pull back on Africa, though capital from Asia, and especially China, could fill much of the gap. Bloomberg’s Doherty says energy firms will continue to seek out new oil projects, on the continent and elsewhere, “as long as the costs make sense.” 

Even if Total and other so-called majors pull back, he adds, smaller players that face less pressure to act on climate could swoop in to take their place. 

African governments, meanwhile, appear increasingly keen to court oil investment—especially as Russia’s war in Ukraine has shifted global priorities away from climate goals and toward concerns about energy supplies. In July, the Democratic Republic of Congo, which produced a modest 22,000 barrels of oil per day in 2021, began auctioning 27 new oil blocks for exploration—including several that infringe on vast tracks of tropical rainforest and peatlands storing billions of tons of carbon, and two that are partially inside Virunga National Park, home to a third of the world’s remaining mountain gorillas. 

Nigeria, where production averaged 1.5 million barrels per day last year, is seeking to boost oil output after years of decline, in part through a new tax structure that prioritises offshore drilling. Other African countries, including Mozambique, Tanzania, and Mauritania, are developing significant new reserves of natural gas.

The fight over “Africa’s Keystone,” however it plays out, may only be a prelude to more battles ahead.


Jonathan W. Rosen splits his time between New England and East Africa. He reported this story from Nairobi, Kenya.


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