U.S. Presses Congo to Slow Oil-and-Gas Push in Rainforests
KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of Congo — Pushing for a reconsideration of plans by the Democratic Republic of Congo to auction parts of its vast rainforests and peatlands, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken announced that American and Congolese officials would form a team to examine proposed oil-and-gas extraction in those areas.
The agreement came on Tuesday during Mr. Blinken’s visit to Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. While there, the secretary of state expressed concern over an effort by the country’s president, Félix Tshisekedi, to auction off vast parcels of land, which are critical to mitigating climate change, to energy companies for exploration. Mr. Blinken’s remarks were the first time the U.S. government has taken a public stand on the issue.
“We had concerns about the announcement of the auction of these oil and gas exploration blocks,” Mr. Blinken said at a news conference on Tuesday. “Some of the blocks infringe on sensitive rainforest and peatland areas, including in the Virunga National Park and Salonga National Park.”
He noted that at the United Nations climate summit in November in Glasgow, governments made a collective pledge of $1.5 billion to support the Congo Basin’s forests. Mr. Tshisekedi signed onto the 10-year plan and was hailed as a leader in climate change mitigation efforts.
His government’s abrupt announcement of the auction in May stunned officials, environmental groups and policymakers worldwide. The auction began on July 28, and the government is taking bids for 27 oil blocks and three gas blocks.
U.S. officials say they are unaware so far of any American companies putting in bids.
Mr. Blinken said he raised the issue separately with Mr. Tshisekedi and Christophe Lutundula, the foreign minister, on Tuesday, and with Jean-Michel Sama Lukonde, the prime minister, on Wednesday. He said Mr. Tshisekedi had promised him that proposed actions would not proceed “in the absence of full environmental impact assessments and studies.”
It is unclear if the American intervention will slow the auction process or its aftermath, or whether it will prompt other nations to try to get involved. But the announcement of the transnational working group was seen as a hopeful sign by some scholars who have studied the threats to the rainforest, especially because Congolese officials had been insisting that the rainforest question is a sovereign matter.
“It is very significant that the environmental impacts of drilling for oil in the rainforest are being discussed at the very highest levels,” said Simon Lewis, a professor of global change science at University College London. “Logically, the D.R.C. government should now officially halt the oil auction until the new D.R.C.-U.S. working group has concluded its discussions and implemented any near-term actions.
“In my view, environmental and social assessments should be completed before any auction, as this is the only way the people of D.R.C. and the world can see if prospecting for oil makes sense,” he added.
American officials said they would need to work out details of the working group with Congo.
Mr. Lutundula said at the news conference with Mr. Blinken that Congo would stick to its promise last year to protect the rainforests, but also stressed that the government needed to find ways to improve the economy of Congo, a nation of 90 million that is one of the world’s poorest. It was exploited for decades as a colony of Belgium before being ruled by dictators.
“The challenge is to find an equilibrium, a balance between the well-being of Congolese people and also the necessity to guarantee a framework, a development framework, an ecological framework,” Mr. Lutundula said.
He also pointed to the history of foreign companies in his country, saying, “We know that there are some countries that have been exploiting D.R.C.’s riches for years now and not respecting at all the biodiversity.”
The rainforest of the Congo Basin stretches for 1,500 miles across central Africa. It acts as a large carbon sink, slowing climate change by removing 1.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere annually, according to Mr. Lewis.
Without solid exploration data, Congolese officials have speculated that up to 16 billion barrels of oil are under the rainforest, and that the country could produce up to one million barrels a day, up from the current number, 25,000.
Energy companies have reaped record profits from oil sales this year as the market price has surged. The United States developed its economy based on fossil fuels, and the American government maintains close ties with some Middle Eastern nations — notably Saudi Arabia — in part because of their capacity for oil production. But environmental advocates say a move by Congo to become a petro-economy is shortsighted, given the widening embrace of renewable energy by many countries, institutions and companies.
Mr. Blinken and Congolese officials also spoke about improving the mining industry, which is rife with corruption and environmentally destructive. He said the United States wanted to work with Congo to ensure that mining companies were not in “a race to the bottom that ends up hurting workers, hurting the environment, fueling armed conflict.”
Mr. Blinken has also urged Congolese officials to ensure that presidential elections next year, in which Mr. Tshisekedi plans to run for office again, are held properly and on time. On Tuesday, police officers arrested Jean-Marc Kabund, a former Tshisekedi ally and now an opposition party leader, on unannounced charges.
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