Oil in Uganda was discovered through geological surveys first made in 1920s along with drilling of several wells that revealed the presence oil deposits in the Lake Albert graben in the western of the country. However, the first law to govern oil exploration and production was passed in the 1986.
Several oil and gas operators were allowed to drill more deeper wells on the lake and in the Semuliki river basin in early 2000s of which results indicated that oil was highly contaminated with too much carbon dioxide making it unsuitable for exploration. With much attention on oil rather than gas, the next seismic surveys and drilling was done on land in Hoima and Bulisa districts (given that it needed less technology and time), where crude oil was deemed right for commercial exploration in 2006.
The Uganda national oil and gas policy was formulated in 2008 to determine the quantity of oil resources available in the Albertine graben and also guide the activities necessary for their exploration, development and production. Through the surveys and data available, the PAU estimates that the Lake Albert graben holds 6.5 billion of which 1.4 barrels of oil have been classified for commercial exploration. Over 21 wells have since been discovered both on the lake and land extending into Nwoya district and within the Murchison Falls Conservation Area (MFCA) including Kabwoya and Bugungu wildlife reserves.
The Uganda Wildlife Act, 2019 was enacted to enhance wildlife conservation efforts through prevention of poaching and habitat destruction. Yet, at the same the wildlife Act also allows for exploration of oil and gas within Uganda’s protected areas given that the impacts will be mitigated through restoration of habitats where they have been degraded. Uganda’s oil industry has therefore reached development and production stages.
There are 13 oil fields licensed for production within the Kingfisher project where exploration is right on the lake and the Tilenga project (on land exploration) which stretches for 2,400 acres from the lake into the protected areas. There’s also construction of a refinery (with capacity of 60,000 barrels of oil per day), underground feeder pipelines and the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP), 1,443 km which will transport oil from Uganda to Tanzania port of Tanga along the coast of the Indian Ocean.
The government of Uganda has since taken several steps forming regulations including the Uganda Petroleum Exploration, Development and Production Act, 2013. The Petroleum Authority of Uganda (PAU) was established in 2014 and has since signed a memorandum of understanding with and licensed 4 companies for crude oil exploration, development and production. These include Armour Energy, Tullow oil, Total Energies Uganda, and the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC). Among the governing laws is the National Environment Oil Spill Prevention, Preparedness and Response Regulations through which the stakeholders established a workplan to monitor oil development and the possible impacts on wildlife and communities.
Murchison Falls, which is divided by the Nile River and features tropical forests, wetlands, and rolling savanna contains rich biodiversity including over 415 species of birds and 77 mammal species. In particular, there are 900 of Uganda’s 5,739 elephants, which are a subject of study in regard to oil and conservation in Uganda.
The park is also famous for harbouring 1,575 Nubian giraffes, which is almost 50% of Africa’s Nubian giraffe population. In addition, there are endangered species such as the shoebill stork, and up to 600 chimpanzees which are available for tracking in the Budongo forest reserve. Chances of seeing wildlife including leopards, giraffes, lions, buffaloes, hippos are higher, making the park is one of the top destinations for wildlife viewing and birding safari in Uganda.
In addition, the major attraction is the Murchison falls, the world’s strongest waterfalls. Here, the Nile River squeezes through a 7-meter gorge and drops off a 45-meter-long cliff into the devil’s cauldron. A proposal to build a hydro power dam which would destroy the falls was rejected in 2017 but now with the oil development and production going ahead, Murchison falls is on the verge of loosing its attractiveness. Conservationists believe that oil development in the long run will lead to destruction of habitat and loss of biodiversity and ultimately affect tourism in the park.
Before the drilling began, an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was carried out to determine the likely negative impacts on wildlife and people around Lake Albert and then devise possible solutions to minimize those impacts. The negative effects of oil development include loss of habitat, oil spillage, light and noise pollution.
The construction of the new tarmac road through Murchison falls national park will in time to come attract high traffic of cars which can lead to road kills, littering, encroachment and poaching. As many people and cars access the park, wildlife disturbance is likely to occur. Animals might start to avoid being nearby the roadsides can also affect game drives and wildlife sightings.
For instance, according to Wildlife Conservation Society of Uganda (WCS) study, the active drilling of oil wells on land along the Tilenga project caused shocks through the earth crust. This has forced elephants in Kabwoya wildlife reserve to migrate for over 1,000 meters away from the construction sites.
Elephants serve as regulators of the ecosystems and they have been used as flagship species to monitor and implement interventions to mitigate the effects of oil development on wildlife in Murchison Falls National Park. GPS collars were put on 15 elephants in the northern sector of the park known as Paara.
The collars help to monitor the animal’s the movement of a given herd, its feeding habits, diet. This data is used by WCS in partnership with UWA and the oil and gas operators to study the behaviour of elephants as they respond to oil and related infrastructure development in and around MFCA. With this conservation strategy, there’s attention on the impact of oil development and production on wildlife. Besides, it is also helping in mitigating human-elephant conflicts while ensuring that wildlife tourism in Uganda benefits local communities.