Takeaways from AP visit to Congo as nation offers expanded oil drilling


The central African nation of Congo is offering 30 oil and gas blocks around the country for auction. It's a prospect that concerns environmentalists and some of the people who live near the drilling that has so far been limited to a small area near its far western border on the Atlantic Ocean.

The Associated Press visited Moanda territory, including two villages near drilling sites, and heard from residents who said air and ground pollution has hurt their crops and caused health problems. They say Perenco, the French-British company that began drilling in 2000, has failed to address those problems, and advocacy groups say they want to see changes before drilling expands.

Perenco disputes any problems.

Some takeaways from AP's visit:


Congo is a mineral-rich nation, but little of that wealth has trickled down to ordinary citizens. Longstanding issues of corruption get part of the blame. More than 60% of Congo's 100 million people get by on less than $2.15 a day, according to the World Bank.

Congo's leaders argue that's one reason that drilling should be expanded — to contribute to economic growth. The sites up for auction contain an estimated 22 billion barrels of oil.

Congo's treasures go beyond what can be mined or drilled. It's home to most of the Congo Basin rainforest, the world's second-largest, and most of the world's largest tropical peatland, made up of partially decomposed wetlands plant material. Together, both capture huge amounts of carbon dioxide — about 1.5 billion tons a year, or about 3% of global emissions.

More than a dozen of the plots up for auction overlap with protected areas in peatlands and rainforests, including the Virunga National Park, which is home to some of the world's rarest gorillas.


AP journalists spoke with dozens of residents, local officials and rights organizations on their visit. Residents say drilling has inched closer to their homes and they have seen pipes break regularly, sending oil into the soil. They blame air and ground pollution for making it hard to cultivate crops and causing health problems such as skin rashes and respiratory infections.

In the village of Kinkazi, locals told AP that Perenco buried chemicals in a nearby pit for years and they seeped into the soil and water. They displayed photos of what they said were toxic chemicals before they were buried and took reporters to the site where they said they'd been discarded. It took the community four years of protests and strikes before Perenco disposed of the chemicals elsewhere, they said.

Most villagers were reluctant to allow their names to be used, saying they feared a backlash from a company that is a source of casual labor jobs. One who was willing to speak, farmer Gertrude Tshonde, said Perenco began dumping chemicals near the village in 2018. She said her farm was behind the pit where chemicals were being thrown and her cassava began to rot.

AP could not independently verify that chemicals had been buried at the site.

AP journalists saw drilling sites, some just a few hundred meters from homes, that had exposed and corroding pipes. They also saw at least four locations that were flaring natural gas, a technique that manages pressure by burning off the gas that is often used when it is impractical or unprofitable to collect it. AP did not see any active spill sites.

Between 2012 and 2022 in Congo, Perenco flared more than 2 billion cubic meters of natural gas, according to the Environmental Investigative Forum, a group of environmental journalists that analyzed data from satellite imagery. Flaring of natural gas, which is mostly methane, emits carbon dioxide, methane and black soot and is damaging to health, according to the International Energy Agency.


Perenco spokesman Mark Antelme said the company doesn't bury chemicals underground and that complaints about the site near Kinkazi were related to old dumping more than 20 years ago by a predecessor company. Antelme also said Perenco hasn't moved operations closer to people's homes. Instead, he said, some communities have gradually built closer to drilling sites.

Antelme also said the company's flaring does not release methane into the atmosphere.

Perenco said it offered to support a power plant that would make use of the natural gas and thus reduce flaring. The government did not respond to questions about the proposed plant.

Congo's minister overseeing oil and gas, Didier Budimbu, said the government is committed to protecting the environment.


Congo has struggled to secure bidders since launching the auction in July 2022. Three companies — two American and one Canadian — moved on three methane gas blocks in Lake Kivu, on the border with Rwanda. The government said in May that they were about to close those tenders, but did not respond to AP's questions in January about whether those deals were finalized.

There are no known confirmed deals on the 27 oil blocks, and the deadline for expressions of interest has been extended through this year. Late last year, Perenco withdrew from bidding on two blocks in the province near where it currently operates. The company didn't respond to questions from AP about why it withdrew, but Africa Intelligence reported that Perenco had found the blocks to have insufficient potential.

Environmental experts say bidding may be slow because the country is a hard place to operate with rampant conflict, especially in the east where some of the blocks are located.

Comments 1
Thumb chrisrushlau 01 March 2024, 23:46

AP considers Africa to be a story waiting to be told, but not by AP.