US presses Congo to slow down oil and gas promotion in rainforests

KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of the Congo – Promoting a review of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s plans to auction large portions of its rainforests and peatlands, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken announced that US and Congolese officials will form a team to examine the proposed oil – Exploration 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. Meanwhile, the foreign minister expressed concern about an attempt by the country’s president, Félix Tshisekedi, to auction off vast parcels of land, crucial to mitigating climate change, to energy companies to probe. Blinken’s remarks were the first time the US government has taken a public position on the issue.

“We were concerned about the announcement of the auction of these oil and gas exploration blocks,” Blinken said at a news conference on Tuesday. “Several blocks encroach into sensitive areas of rainforest and peatland, including in Virunga National Park and Salonga National Park.”

He noted that at the United Nations climate summit in November in Glasgow, governments collectively pledged $1.5 billion to support the forests of the Congo Basin. Mr. Tshisekedi signed on to the 10-year plan and was hailed as a leader in efforts to mitigate climate change.

The government’s sudden announcement of the auction in May stunned officials, environmental groups and policymakers around the world. The auction began on July 28, and the government is conducting tenders for 27 oil lots and three gas blocks.

U.S. officials said so far they are not aware of any American companies participating in the tender.

Mr Blinken said he raised the matter privately with Mr Tshisekedi and Christophe Lutundula, foreign ministers, on Tuesday, and with Jean-Michel Sama Lukonde, the prime minister, on Wednesday. He said Mr Tshisekedi had promised him that the proposed actions would not be carried out “in the absence of adequate environmental impact studies and assessments.”

It is unclear whether the US intervention will slow the auction process or its consequences, or whether it will spur other countries to try to join. But the announcement by the transnational working group is seen by some scholars who study threats to rainforests as a hopeful sign, especially since Congolese officials have consistently emphasized that the problem rainforests are a matter of sovereignty.

Simon Lewis, professor of the science of global change at University College London, said: “It is very important that the environmental impact of oil drilling in the rainforest is being discussed at the highest level. “Logically, the DRC government should now officially suspend the oil auction until the new DRC-US working group concludes discussions and takes any short-term action.

“In my view, environmental and social assessments should be completed prior to any auction, as this is the only way the people of the DRC and the world can see if oil exploration is successful. meaningful or not,” he added.

US officials said they would need to find out the details of the working group with Congo.

Mr Lutundula said at a press conference with Mr Blinken that Congo would fulfill its promise last year to protect its rainforests, but also stressed that the government needed to find ways to improve the economy of Congo, the nation 90 million people. one of the poorest countries in the world. It was exploited for decades as a Belgian colony before being ruled by dictators.

“The challenge is to find the balance, the balance between the happiness of the Congolese people and also the need to ensure a framework, a framework of development, an ecological framework,” said Mr. Lutundula.

He also points to the history of foreign companies in his country, saying, “We know that there are a number of countries that have been exploiting the wealth of the DRC for many years now and have no respect at all. Biodiversity.”

The rainforests of the Congo Basin stretch for 1,500 miles across Central Africa. It acts as a major carbon sink, slowing climate change by removing 1.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere annually, according to Lewis.

Without solid exploration data, Congolese officials have speculated that as much as 16 billion barrels of oil lie in the rainforest and that the country could produce up to one million barrels per day, up from the current figure. 25,000.

Energy companies have reaped record profits from oil sales this year due to strong market prices. The United States builds its economy on fossil fuels, and the U.S. government maintains close ties with several Middle Eastern countries – especially Saudi Arabia – in part because of its manufacturing capacity. their oil. Environmental advocates, however, argue that Congo’s emergence as an oil and gas economy is short-sighted, as many countries, organizations and companies are increasingly scaling up renewable energy.

Blinken and Congolese officials also talked about improving the mining industry, which is rife with corruption and environmental destruction. He said the US wants to work with Congo to ensure that mining companies are not in “a race to the bottom that hurts workers, hurts the environment, promotes conflict.” armed”.

Mr Blinken has also urged Congolese officials to ensure that next year’s presidential elections, in which Mr Tshisekedi plans to run for re-election, are held properly and on time. On Tuesday, police officers arrested Jean-Marc Kabund, a former ally of Tshisekedi and now leader of the opposition party, on charges of unannounced.

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