Jhe French oil and gas company TotalEnergies has worked to cultivate a green reputation with climate goals and plans to increase renewable energy, but a massive oil project in East Africa casts a shadow over that messaging campaign.
Total plans to drill for oil in a biodiversity-rich national park in Uganda and build a 900-mile pipeline, the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP), which will cross sensitive environments to a port in Tanzania for the export.
Burning this oil could release the equivalent of 34 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year into the atmosphere, according to opponents of the projectwhich point out that scientists have said the world needs to drastically reduce, not increase, emissions.
Total, the second French company in terms of turnover, changed its name in May 2021, renaming itself TotalEnergies and adopting a rainbow-themed logo. But his work in East Africa has become a rallying point for protesters, including during major climate marches in France last month.
The project also put off investors. More than half of the banks that have historically financed Total have excluded supporting the project, a symbol of the difficulty oil and gas companies are facing as they try to thread the needle to appear concerned about the climate crisis while continuing to extract fossil fuels. At least five insurers also ruled out support.
“TotalEnergies was our favorite company in the sector,” said Dennis van der Putten, who works in responsible investing at Dutch asset management firm Actiam. “It is with heartache that we have decided to exclude them. But we had to, from our sustainability perspective.
The European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, said it “does not support the financing of oil projects in Africa”.
Critics of Total are increasingly isolating the French government and its president, Emmanuel Macron, who has repeatedly pledged to phase out fossil fuels but backed EACOP.
If France does not contribute financially to the project, it provides diplomatic support. In a letter Sent to Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni in early 2021, Macron described the EACOP as a “major opportunity” for the two countries to “expand their cooperation”.
The Elysee Palace and French Ecology Minister Barbara Pompili declined to comment on this story.
While Total has argued that its project was “carried out without the involvement of the French government”, a recent report by three environmental and watchdog NGOs suggests that Total has long used “revolving door tactics” – hiring former senior civil servants and politicians, or seeing its own employees leave to work for the government.
Planning for the project has already sparked controversy over how people will be compensated for their land, leading to allegations of human rights violations and drawing the attention of at least one MP, Matthieu Orphelin, who wrote a letter to the French government highlighting what he described as “proven violations of human rights and of the environment”.
Developers first discovered Uganda’s promising oilfields in the early 2000s. The British company Tallow oil had success in test wells in 2006. By 2020, Tullow Oil had sold its stakes in the area to Total and the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC).
Total acquired the Tilenga fields in Murchison Falls National Park. The area includes a wetland site which is home to various species of birds. It also provides habitat for giraffes, elephants, giant pangolins, spotted hyenas, lions, chimpanzees, buffaloes, hippos, hartebeest, waterbucks, warthogs, oribis, Uganda kobs and gray duikers. .
The fields of Tilenga consist of more than 400 wells, with an estimated production of 190,000 barrels of oil per day. CNOOC will drill south, producing around 40,000 barrels per day, and the two companies will send their oil through the EACOP pipeline.
Critics say the drilling and pipeline threaten biodiversity and jeopardize the Nile’s water sources. Activists have also accused the project’s promoters of human rights abuses. They say compensation has been late or insufficient and opponents have been intimidated and arrested. Their stories have been relayed by UN special rapporteurs, although the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has not yet assessed the project, noted Total in response to this story while condemning threats against peaceful protesters.
The project puts a significant dent in Total’s pro-climate claims. Total says its work in East Africa would have a far more limited climate impact than the 34 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year suggested by opponents. But that’s because Total doesn’t account for the emissions that occur when its oil is burned. It is only responsible for emissions from its own operations, which it estimates at around 23 million metric tons of carbon dioxide over the life of the project, approximately four decades.
Total has in recent years set itself the target of being carbon neutral by 2050, even though its chief executive, Patrick Pouyanné, in 2020 mocked competitors who promised the same. Pouyanné in a recent interview argued that if Total abandoned its oil projects, another company would simply take its place.
Reclaim Finance, an NGO, calculated that Total, Europe’s largest oil and gas developer, forecasts a 33% increase in production by 2030 compared to current levels.
Just a few weeks ago, three environmental groups filed a lawsuit against Total for “misleading” the public about its climate targets as it moves to increase production in Uganda, Mozambique and the Arctic, the groups said.
“People have a right to know whether companies competing for their business are fueling or fighting climate change,” said Johnny White, a lawyer for the charity ClientEarth.
Punished by the fight against climate pollution, companies around the world are increasingly seeking to distance themselves from fossil fuels. This is what first attracted ethical investors from Actiam to Total.
“Our view was that Total was more ahead in terms of climate action and renewable energy and was ahead of American and European companies. We thought they had a credible energy transition strategy,” said Greta Fearman, responsible investing expert for the firm.
But the EACOP project “sounded the alarm”, she said.
An American engineer consulted by Actiam, Bill Powers, warned that the project could pollute essential drinking water supplies.
“There will be spills,” Powers said. You can’t avoid this, and it’s not really an accusation but a technical reality.
Powers said he was particularly worried about Total’s plans for an estimated amount 230,000 metric tons of hazardous waste cuttings and drilling mud loaded with heavy metals and other toxic substances.
In other projects, notably in the North Sea, Total has drilled an injection well to send waste deep underground. But in Uganda, subcontractors will transport it to landfills several tens of kilometers away, generating thousands of truck journeys.
“Total presents this as a good thing, like jobs for Ugandans. That’s what I call putting lipstick on a pig. In reality, this waste may never even reach a secure landfill,” Powers said.
Total did not directly address the likelihood of spills or waste disposal concerns, but pointed to independent assessments that it said ensure the project is “implemented in accordance with best social and environmental practices.”
Total says it is taking steps to produce a “net positive impact” on biodiversity, including “reducing human pressure” on the park by offering drilling as an alternative economic activity to tourism.
In fall 2021, Total proposed a global partnership with the International Union for Conservation of Nature to help reduce its impacts on biodiversity. But the Switzerland-based NGO said it had not yet reached an agreement with the company and that consultations were continuing.
Fearman said Total has recognized that the project will have an impact on the environment “but their position is that if you lose biodiversity somewhere, just compensate somewhere else, by supporting conservation programs in other parts of the world. Africa”.
As Total faces scrutiny from banks and investors for its work in East Africa, Dutch organization BankTrack has pointed out that it has undisclosed who will provide the required $3bn (£2.3bn) project loan.
Shareholders approved the EACOP project, but Total said its financing is “still being arranged with interested international financial institutions.”
“[It’s] no wonder this project is struggling to find enough unscrupulous and reckless financiers to back it,” said Banktrack spokesman Ryan Brightwell, mentioned.