Total will start seismic testing to assess oil reserves below Uganda’s natural park but says less disruptive technology will be used to minimise possible damage.
Both, Total and Uganda’s government maintain that crude oil could be extracted without causing damage to one of the country’s last major wilderness areas - the Murchinson Falls National Park.
The preliminary surveys before the actual seismic testing are already underway, however, nature conservation groups are concerned about the potential harm this undertaking can cause to precious local habitats and its species.
"This is one of the first cases of oil exploration and development in a national park in Africa. As such, Total should realise that the eyes of the world are on them," said Alistair McNeilage, Uganda Country Director for the U.S.-based Wildlife Conservation Society.
Total has reassured they are using an innovative cableless technology, which, unlike traditional methods, doesn’t require extensive areas to be cleared from vegetation.
Conventionally, bushes and trees need to be removed from a belt of land several metres wide and up to three kilometres long. By blasting explosives, surveyors create seismic vibrations. Analysis of the echo patterns can subsequently reveal information about the nature of oil pockets beneath the surface.
Total said the innovative technology employed by the company doesn’t require vegetation removal as no cables need to be put on the ground to measure the waves. Instead, cylinder-shaped and lightweight nodes are buried into the soil and used for recording. From the industry's perspective this is also better than cables above ground, which can be chewed and damaged by wild animals.
However, the environmentalists still have doubts. According to Peter Wrenge, the Director of the Elephant Listening Project at Cornell University, the noise stress put on animals by constant explosive blasting can have detrimental effect on their health.
Total's environmental impact assessment (EIA) for the seismic testing in the Murchison Falls park places some limits on the proximity of testing to important wildlife habitats, according to a copy seen by Reuters. The nature conservation groups are alarmed, however, by Uganda agreeing with the assessment without requiring independent monitors.
Uganda has known crude oil reserves of more than 2 billion barrels, including under the national park which is named after the spectacular waterfalls within its boundaries where a section of the Nile squeezes through a narrow gorge.
Accoding to recent estimates of Tullow Oil Plc, the impoverished country could earn up to $50bn from exploiting the crude, equivalent to three years' worth of its total economic output.
If the drilling is to proceed, Uganda’s government believes the risk of potential spillage and pollution of the Nile delta is reasonably controlled. "Technologies for drilling in sensitive areas like in water bodies or close to water bodies exist and they've been used in Europe, South America and elsewhere," said Uganda’s junior energy minister Peter Lokeris.
Some of the local inhabitants believe oil extraction could help the people find the way out of poverty, something tourism in the park has never managed to achieve. "We've been living in misery for a long time," Jean Claude Bambanze, the president of a civil society group in Rutshuru. "You look at tourism. It's done nothing to help the population. If we do have oil, that would be a real chance, it could provide work."