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From impact assessment to influence avenues

In the final part of our three-part series on oil waste, we look at the politics of environmental impact assessment (EIA) in the petroleum sector. Given that EIAs are conducted by private consultants hired by the oil companies, it raises questions of connivance.

It becomes a sort of environmental influence avenue (EIA), as Edward Ssekika reports.  

Dr Tom Okurut, the head of the National Environment Management Authority (Nema), once admitted in a public meeting that Uganda had failed to carry out a comprehensive environmental and social impact study in the Albertine graben oil exploration and production area. Oil exploration activities are subject to EIAs on a case-by-case basis– with each exploration well, for example, needing an EIA. But no one has yet joined up the dots.

In the case of oil, international precedent shows that oil waste should be one of the key concerns of the EIA. How waste disposal will be handled, for instance, can often be the difference between oil being a curse or a blessing especially to local communities. Ideally, no project should be approved if there are serious risks to communities and the environment. But do Uganda’s EIAs ask the right question and find environmentally-sound answers?

Environmental experts say that Uganda’s EIA process is marred by delays, shortage of technical expertise, lack of follow-up and the inherent disposition for EIA consultants to please the developers who hire them.

Paul Mafabi, the Commissioner for Wetlands and Environment at the ministry of Water and Environment, says Uganda’s EIAs are wanting. Mafabi himself has several years of experience doing EIAs on behalf of the government and various private companies and corporations.

“For years, I have seen many EIA reports done by different experts, but the quality is very poor,” he says.

Many experts, he adds, “do not diagnose the right impacts for some projects and they do not recommend the right mitigation measures for others.”

In Uganda, EIAs are conducted by private practitioners on behalf of developers who fund them. Nema is charged with overseeing the process. Achilles Byaruhanga, the executive director of the conservation NGO Nature Uganda, says that because Nema does not conduct or fund EIAs, developers can easily influence the outcomes.

“The EIA experts dance to the tune of the developers who pay them. They fear they will lose their contracts if they do the right thing; so in the end the quality is compromised,” Byaruhanga asserts.

David Duli, the Uganda country director of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), adds that because the EIA process is still relatively new in Uganda, there is a shortage of EIA experts in the country —only   120 in total. Nema is facing dire challenges of manpower. Arnold Ayazika Waiswa, the authority’s director of environmental monitoring and compliance, says that in his department, the volume of EIA reports has increased but the manpower remains small.

“We are understaffed and cannot handle all EIA reports adequately. We need to add more experts but our hands are tied behind. Nema is a government agency and we cannot do recruitment without [following] civil service rules. We have submitted a new recruitment structure to government and we are waiting for approval. It is a little bit frustrating but we have to be patient to succeed,” he explains.

Years of delay

But as Nema waits, EIA practitioners and the developers who hire them are increasingly frustrated by delays. Alfred Tumusiime, the managing director of Opportunities for Environmental Planning Consult Limited, says he has waited for years for his EIA reports to be approved or rejected by Nema. His company is now losing clients because they try to side-step the EIA process.

“If a developer waits for this long, they may lose business or go bankrupt. So, there are many developers dodging the mandatory EIA process,” he says.

According to the law, the EIA process for any project must be completed within three months. Yet Tumusiime says he has spent over three years pleading with Nema to review 15 EIA reports. In a recent meeting with Nema, Tumusiime learnt that the authority currently has over 500 EIA reports awaiting review.

According to the EIA process, when Nema is reviewing the EIA reports, district environment officers in the locality where a development is proposed are supposed to comment and add recommendations.

“But many of these officers often refuse, arguing that they have not been facilitated with per diem and transport. They demand money from us, which is not proper,” Tumusiime complains.

Oil priority

According to Tumusiime, Nema gives priority to the oil sector and the process is much faster than for other commercial developments. Nevertheless, the period in which Nema reviews the assessments still sometimes exceeds the legal timeframe. When Tumusiime did an EIA for Dominion Oil in 2008, he recalls, Nema took five months to review it instead of the mandatory three months.

The ActionAid newsletter Oil in Uganda managed to examine some of the oil sector EIA reports in NEMA’s library. They are officially public documents, but they were not easy to access:  Nema staff, oil companies and environmental services companies initially all referred requests for samples to each other.

Sample assessments

In September 2009, Heritage Oil and Gas contracted Environmental Assessment Consult Ltd to conduct an EIA for Bbegeril exploration well, in Ngwedo parish, Buliisa sub-county. Moses Kitimbo, who carried out the assessment, wrote that potential impacts included noise, surface and ground water pollution, air pollution, diseases, accidents and soil erosion.

Recommended general mitigation measures included environmental management and setting up a monitoring plan. In December 2008, Tullow Uganda Pty Limited contracted Air, Water and Earth to do an EIA for the proposed early production system at Kaiso-Tonya area, Block 2, Lake Albert.

According to the report, meetings for the impacts were held and they discovered that the project could bring solid waste problems, accidents during transport of products and contamination of water. The report recommended mitigations such as developing a solid waste management plan following the principles, and waste treatment and responsible disposal in storage areas, among others.

Most recommendations in these samples seemed to be of a rather general nature, without concrete mitigation measures on air pollution or avoidance of polluting water sources. Nor did they give concrete suggestions on mitigating disturbances to wildlife, merely recommending that the Uganda Wildlife Authority or National Forest Authority serve as lead agents to monitor and report any impacts.

Satisfied

However, in a written statement, Tullow Oil representatives expressed broad satisfaction with the EIA processes in Uganda. Nema, the statement said, has put in place clear guidelines that have enabled the business to undertake operations in accordance with international best practices. This EIA process reportedly involves various assessments, frequent reviews and extensive consultation with stakeholders.

Responding to a question about ‘challenges’ in the process, Tullow’s representatives wrote: “For a new industry that is currently growing, you will find that some standards have not yet been developed. However government is in the process of developing all required standards. For example, guidelines for waste management have been published recently and are under review by the industry.

“Nonetheless, in the absence of some standards, we follow international standards and industry best practice to ensure environmental accountability and safeguard the environment.

“Another challenge is related to the large demand made on the local consultants who are dealing with a new industry and its impact. However, to boost local capacity development, the operators bring in international consultants and promote partnership with local consultant to insure that best practice are implemented and foster the development of local capacity and expertise.”

Ultimately, then, the question of oil waste in Uganda boils down to capacity. Capacity to appreciate the risks, capacity to put in place mitigating measures, capacity by regulators to bite offenders and deter abuse so as to protect Ugandans.

ssekika@observer.ug

This Observer feature is published in partnership with Panos Eastern Africa, with funding from the European Union’s Media for Democratic Governance and Accountability Project.

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