Environmental experts and activists have advised the National Environment Management Authority (Nema) to look at technology that can turn oil waste into business opportunities.
Ronald Angutoko, an environmental engineer with Total E&P to said Uganda is expected to generate 200,000 to 300,000 tonnes of toxic oil waste throughout the entire lifespan of the petroleum industry, which is currently estimated at between 25 and 30 years. Nema’s capacity to handle such volumes of waste has been questioned.
Oil waste management was a centre of a discussion at the 1st Petroleum Industry Environmental Management Conference held at Speke Resort Munyonyo last week. Norwegian Petroleum Academy (NPA) and its local subsidiary Rtenn, National Environment Management Authority (Nema), Uganda Bureau of Standards (UNBS) and ActionAid Uganda organised the conference.
Jo Lien, the vice-president of Norwegian Petroleum Academy, said although the oil waste that is estimated to be generated may look little, it is likely to have a huge impact on the environment if it is not well handled.
“If you divide 300,000 tonnes of waste into what a truck can actually carry, it can come to several trucks of waste on a daily basis, meaning that many trucks are expected to be moving in the park, something that is likely to scare away animals. So, all these need to be managed well,” he told The Observer at the sidelines of the conference.
Dr Tom Okurut, the executive director of Nema, said the authority had, so far, competently protected the environment. He acknowledged that oil discovery and exploitation in the country had sparked off fear, anxiety, hope as well as loss of land and livelihoods.
“Ordinary people in Uganda are not worried by whether oil is going to make them rich or poor but they fear that this oil is going to bring something else, mainly destroy the environment and livelihood,” he said.
Environmental management is one of the key pillars of developing Uganda’s oil, while others are resource and financial management. Okurut said Nema’s mandate is to ensure that exploitation of oil in the Albertine grabben doesn’t negatively impact on Lake Albert’s biodiversity.
“Definitely, there will be some change on the environment, but our task is to manage that change and ensure that it is minimal,” he said. He explained that Nigeria’s Niger delta is a perfect example of how oil can lead to loss of livelihood.
Okurut attacked those who were critical of Nema’s capacity to monitor waste management, arguing that their comments were ill-founded. He said it was not by accident that for the last eight years there had been no major environmental incident in the oil industry. He said it had been the authority’s deliberate intervention to stop any impact on the environment. For instance, he said, Nema had ensured successful exploration of oil in the Murchison Falls national park.
“Government made a risky decision and allowed oil exploration in the park. But we issued guidelines that compelled oil companies not to drill at night and switch off all the lights at night to allow animals to mate,” he said. He added that it was Nema that ensured that all oil waste generated in the park is removed from the park and consolidated outside.
Kwaku Ennin, the chief executive officer, Zeal Environmental Technologies Limited (a Ghanaian company that manages oil and other waste in Ghana), said the best way of handling oil waste is to turn it into a business opportunity.
“Don’t look at oil waste as waste; it is money,” he said. He gave the example of Ghana where Zeal Environmental Technologies Limited turned non-toxic oil waste like mud cuttings into bricks, which they later donated to the communities as part of the company’s corporate social responsibility programme.
Kwaku explained that the best way to deal with oil waste was to continue looking at technologies that can turn oil waste into money. Nasser Matovu of Uganda Insurance Association implored oil companies and government to look at insurance as an option in managing the environment. He said risks such as oil spills should be insured.
Total’s Angutoko said it was not proper that oil waste was containerised for so long. Over the years, Nema has grappled with the treatment and disposal of waste. This has led to having it sorted and consolidated at four different sites in the Albert graben, the biggest being at Ngara in Buliisa district.
But Angutoko argues that this is a bad practice as it is associated with many risks. He said containerisation of liquid waste could lead to seepage or toxic gases, which could be emitted into the atmosphere. In addition, it creates a lot of anxiety and fear within the host communities.
He advised that Uganda needed to work towards putting in place a functional oil spill contingent plan, which could be a guide towards responding to a spill as soon it happens. Already, discussions are underway between Nema and relevant stakeholders about drafting an oil spill contingent plan.
The Norwegian ambassador to Uganda, Thorbjorn Gausteather, said oil offers a great opportunity to Uganda because if it is managed well, it would create jobs, improve infrastructure, health and education systems, among others. He called for a public discussion on environmental management of oil and gas.
“Developing these laws, regulations and studies, is one thing; the big problem is enforcement of these laws, standards and regulations,” he emphasized.
“Political will is key in this,” he added.
He said oil companies needed to be responsible to ensure that their activities don’t pollute the environment. He called for cooperation between companies and government over waste management.
He concluded that the task is to strike a delicate balance between oil exploitation and environmental conservation or else have the public will remain in fear over the impact of oil.
“It is a daily fear, which is genuine…” he said.