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No cause for worry over oil waste

By Naomi N. Karekaho

Government recognises the challenges in managing petroleum waste and the need to agree on a solution

On June 15, The Independent magazine published an article: `Living in fear of oil waste’. The article was rooted in the conservationist ideas usually advanced by NGOs and civil society organisations in the region.

It is important to note that the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) which oversees all environment matters in Uganda regulates the environment for sustainability and not for strict conservation purposes.

Conservationists believe that natural resources should not be touched. In fact, the oil and gas resources should be left under the ground where they belong. What does this approach mean for Uganda, a developing country with staggering needs such as health, education and infrastructure services to address?

The key word in managing environment and particularly the waste from petroleum activities is “sustainability”. NEMA’s slogan is “ensuring sustainable development.”

“Sustainable development” refers to development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.

It is indeed no secret that Uganda’s Albertine Graben (AG) where the oil/gas resources are found is the most species rich eco-region for vertebrates in Africa and contains 39% of Africa’s mammal species, 51% of its bird species, 19% of its amphibian species and 14% of its plant and reptile species. National parks such as Queen Elizabeth, Murchison Falls and Semliki Game Reserve are found in this Graben. The overlap between the leading tourist destinations in Uganda and oil activities presents a potential for human, social-economic, cultural, atmospheric, aquatic, terrestrial and eco-systems impacts.

In the spirit of sustainable development, the Uganda government gave the mantle of managing and coordinating the petroleum sector to the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development (MEMD), supported by other relevant departments such as NEMA, Fisheries, Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) and Directorate of Water Resources Management (DWRM).

These institutions of government have the responsibility of ensuring that petroleum activities which fall within their mandates are managed well by the oil companies. In addition, joint regular inspections are carried out by these institutions to boost the inspections of the resident officers from the same departments in the Graben.

In that regard, Ugandans need not worry about oil waste management because the required frameworks are being put in place to mitigate any possible negative impacts.

Many interventions have already been put in place to mitigate the negative impacts that the petroleum sector may have on the environment.

Strategic Environment Assessment (SEA); The SEA is a globally recognised tool used to complement planning at higher levels of government decision making. It provides; comprehensive assessment of environmental and other issues; a well structured public and government debate on these issues and a mechanism to take the results of assessment and debate into account.

SEA is thus used for providing guidance for developing conditions to ensure that oil and gas activities are undertaken in a manner that conserves the environment and biodiversity in the Albetine Graben area and beyond. The process of undertaking a SEA for the Albertine Graben is on-going and will be completed by the end of 2012.

A sensitivity atlas for the Albertine Graben has been developed. This atlas provides an environmental data dictionary and will be utilised as a tool in risk assessment, clean up prioritisation and in selection of appropriate methods and tools of response.

Movement schedule for oil/gas companies has been established in the parks to ensure tourists are not interrupted.

Awareness raising has been going on with local governments, lead agencies and stakeholders in the tourism industry.

Continuous monitoring of developers to ensure observation of Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) requirements.

The process of oil flaring during well testing was stopped on environmental grounds in consideration of air quality. Crude oil from testing is containerised on site and plans of selling this crude oil to industry in the country are under preparation.

Routine monitoring by field offices from PEPD, NEMA and UWA is ongoing.

As NEMA, we refute the claims as contained in The Independent article and we state as follows:

Waste is not “dumped” at any location but rather contained securely in designated areas. The article failed to refer to the environmental safeguards that are in place at these locations including Ngara. These locations are not identified or gazetted by NEMA per se but rather identified by the oil companies and subsequently approved by NEMA after sufficient vetting which is done with the local leadership.

The article said “Government and companies work too closely…” It would be grossly wrong for regulators to give distance to the operators as it is important that regulators fully understand and follow all the activities being undertaken in the Graben. Otherwise, it is impossible to regulate from outside of the activities.

The claim that NEMA is housed in Tullow camps is false.

It is also not government (or NEMA) to procure waste management companies as this violates the waste management regulations. When necessary, independent contractors, certified by NEMA, shall be engaged by the oil companies to manage waste under the regulation of NEMA on behalf of government.

The issue of Buliisa not having a substantive District Environment Officer (DEO) is one that can only be addressed by the local government.

Government recognises the challenges in managing petroleum waste.  These should be appreciated in the context of the oil exploration stage and they include; insufficient baseline scientific data to support approval of some developments, which is being addressed by ongoing studies; increased rainfall which increases the volume of waste and therefore the need to expedite the process of agreeing on a permanent solution to waste management.

Others are; lack of adequate number of personnel to monitor the whole Albertine Graben, which means institutions need to continue recruiting and training more field officers; and lack of sufficient knowledge of the sector by concerned stakeholders thus increased anxiety and expectations.

Naomi N. Karekaho, is Spokesperson/Public Relations Officer for National Environment Management Authority.

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