New Year’s resolution for oil and gas industry: make World Heritage Site Virunga no-go area

Oil industry should pledge to avoid World Heritage Sites, article by  Chris Tomlinson Houston Chronicle columnist.

Allow me to propose a New Year’s resolution for the oil and gas industry: make World Heritage Sites no-go areas.

These are the world’s most beautiful, ecologically important and culturally iconic places, as chosen by a team of international experts assembled by the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Sites chosen for their natural attributes include Yellowstone National Park, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania.

Before anyone worries that I’m trying to ban drilling on half the globe, consider that there are only 228 natural sites with the World Heritage designation, and they cover only 689 million of the Earth’s 36.6 billion acres. That’s only 1.8 percent of the planet’s surface that would be off-limits to oil and gas drilling.

So far, though, only Royal Dutch Shell and Total have publicly committed to not carry out or support extractive activities in World Heritage sites.

“Our customers, our stakeholders, as well as our staff, want to be sure that our products are of the highest quality and provide good value for money,” Sir Philip Watts, the Shell CEO at the time, said in a speech making the announcement. “But they also want to know that what they buy has been produced in a way that respects the wider communities and environments in which we work.”

Last month, nine conservation organizations called for similar pledges, but most companies have not responded, according to Andrea Athanas, a program officer with the African Wildlife Foundation.

“There is a threat to World Heritage Sites across the continent and globally from oil and gas exploration and extraction activities,” she said in a Skype interview from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. “Exploration activities will threaten the value of World Heritage Sites and therefore should not be taking place.”

Immediate threats

Right now, four World Heritage Sites are directly threatened from oil and gas extraction, including the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System, Virgin Komi Forests in Russia, Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve and the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Kahuzi-Biega and Virunga national parks, according to UNESCO.

Virunga National Park in eastern Congo has received a lot of attention recently thanks to a Netflix investigatory film produced by Leonardo DiCaprio titled “Virunga.” The 1.9-million-acre national park, established in 1925 and the first in Africa, stretches from the Virunga mountains on the Rwandan border where endangered mountain gorillas live westward to a valley populated with lowland gorillas, chimpanzees and a lake with 20,000 hippopotamuses.

In all, the park is home to 218 mammal species, 706 bird species, 109 reptile species and 78 amphibian species.

I’ve spent a lot of time in the park reporting on fighting in both Rwanda and Congo. After visiting almost 60 countries, I still think the park’s spectacular transition from snow-capped volcanoes to equatorial forest and savanna makes Virunga one of the most amazing places in the world to see.

Despite Congolese law prohibiting oil exploration in national parks, the international designation by the United Nations and intense factional fighting, London-based Soco still set its sights on exploring for oil in Virunga. Soco prides itself on moving into difficult parts of the world early, and has operations in Angola, Vietnam and the Republic of Congo.

Only after months of protests did Soco announce in June that it had reached a deal with the World Wildlife Fund that it would not drill in Virunga unless the United Nations and the government agree it is compatible with the park’s world heritage status. But it left the door open.

“Our agreement with WWF focuses the need for the DRC (Congolese) Government and UNESCO to also reach an agreement on the best way to combine development and the environment,” Rui de Sousa, chairman of Soco, said in a statement.

A call to catch up

Needless to say, defenders of World Heritage Sites would prefer that the option of drilling in any World Heritage site was simply off the table.

“The oil and gas sector is behind,” Athanas said. “The mining sector has made commitments as a sector under the International Council on Mining and Metals … to not explore or to extract mineral resources inside World Heritage Sites.”

Athanas called the oil and gas sector’s inaction particularly disconcerting considering the amount of new exploration underway in the most remote parts of the world, such as Uganda. A decade ago there was almost no exploration for oil in central or east Africa, and now there is a rush to stake out claims across the region.

The suddenness of the exploration is part of the problem. Few of these governments have experience with the industry and most are desperate for revenue. These are not governing institutions capable of negotiating with multinational corporations on an equal footing.

“I do think it is a weak governance issue, fundamentally, and a weakness in coordination between government agencies,” Athanas said. Economic development officials often approve projects without checking first with environmental protection officials, she added.

That’s why Athanas thinks governments are the key to protecting these special places, but there’s also a chance here for industry leaders to set a standard for others to follow.

Persuading a board of directors to boycott any activities within, or products produced from, a World Heritage Site should be an easy sell for any CEO worth his or her salt. The pledge takes little off the table but looks good in the corporate social responsibility section of the annual report.

I hope to see some press releases in 2015.

Source: Houston Chronicle

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