The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has postponed its plans to allow oil companies to drill in its rainforests and peatlands.
The government had planned to announce which companies were bidding to drill for oil in 27 areas of the DRC on Monday January 30.
But, on the Saturday before the deadline, hydrocarbons minister Didier Budimbu tweeted that the cut-off points had been pushed back to various dates between April and October 2023.
La date limite de dépôt de candidature pour les 27 blocs pétroliers est prolongée d’Avril à Octobre 2023, selon les blocs. Ce report permettra aux compagnies de poursuivre les différentes évaluations techniques indispensables à l’appréciation des offres. https://t.co/S7gPsd4yFY pic.twitter.com/8n6nA1qoXL
— Didier Budimbu Ntubuanga (@DidierBudimbu) January 28, 2023
Peatlands and rainforest
Three of these oil blocks are particularly controversial because they include parts of the country’s Cuvette Centrale rainforest and peatlands. These have been postponed to deadlines in July and August.
Rainforests suck in a lot of carbon while peatland stores it in the ground. Draining the water away from peatlands leaves the peat vulnerable to catching fire.
Thirteen of the blocks overlap with protected areas including Virunga national park, home to rare mountain gorillas.
Tal Harris, a spokesperson for Greenpeace Africa, told Climate Home: “Whatever the reason for the DRC to reschedule its oil auction, the Congolese government should use it to close the chapter on its fossil horror story and offer an alternative story of hope”.
He said that investments in “clean, renewable and decentralised” energy solutions can end energy poverty and protect the planet.
“Communities and wildlife in designated oil blocks need to live in peace without the looming threat of the rainforest being sold to the highest bidder,” he added.
Greenpeace Africa has kept records of public statements made by multinational oil companies.
According to this list, eleven companies have indicated they are not interested in these blocks. This includes Total, Eni, Shell and Exxon Mobil.
But others like Chevron, Tullow Oil and Franco-Anglo Percenco have not publicly commented.
After an international outcry over the oil drilling, the government indicated it may be prepared to accept payment for leaving the oil in the ground.
“We’re not doing this to destroy the rainforest, we’re doing it for economic gain . . . With or without oil, what’s important is that we earn [money],” Budimbu told the Financial Times last August.
But there have been no serious discussions around this. The average DRC citizen is five times poorer than the global average and the government argues oil production will help the country develop economically.
In 2007, Ecuador asked for other countries to pay it to leave its oil in the ground. It was looking for half the money it would get from oil but was only offered a much smaller amount. So it went ahead with oil drilling.
Only a handful of countries have promised to stop producing fossil fuels. Commenting on the DRC’s plans, the environment minister of Gabon Lee White said “the Norways and the UKs of this world cannot make a moral call for African nations not to exploit their oil.”
Gas goes ahead
While these 27 oil blocks have been delayed, the government has auctioned off three gas blocks to US and Canadian companies.
These three are on Lake Kivu, on the country’s eastern border with Rwanda. Gas is already being produced from the Rwandan side of the lake.
These blocks are less controversial as they do not affect rainforests or peatlands and there are plans to use the gas for local industry and cooking, rather than exporting it.
If done correctly, gas extraction could lessen the risk of the lake’s gases exploding, gas companies have claimed. Millions of people live around the lake.
Oil majors including Total and Eni already have concessions in the Cuvette Centrale region in the neighbouring Republic of Congo. But no exploration has taken place so far.
In 2019, Total’s CEO Patrick Pouyanné told local journalists the company was willing to undertake seismic surveys in the region to “help Congo to evaluate its resources”.
This article was updated on 31 January to clarify that Total and Eni’s concessions are in the Republic of Congo’s section of the Cuvette Centrale not the Democratic Republic of Congo’s and to clarify that the January 30 deadline was when the government was supposed to announce which companies were bidding, rather than which companies were awarded the contracts.