Gulf of Mexico oil spill triggers wake up call for Uganda


The National Environmental Management Authority seems to have woken up to the stark reality of the inherent dangers of drilling for oil and producing crude oil in ecologically sensitive areas, following the global media coverage of the extremely damaging oil spill off the US Gulf coast. Fragile ecosystems there, in spite of the technological might and status of general preparedness of the US authorities and emergency response teams, are being damaged – some are saying beyond repair – and comparisons are already drawn with the Alaska oil spill of the Exxon Valdez long ago, where the damage to fish, wildlife, birds, and the coastline until today continues to show fallout and negative effects.

Here in Uganda, a similar accident would likely spell even greater disaster to the fragile areas of Murchisons Falls National Park, the river Nile, Lake Albert, and the length of the Albertine Graben, where exploration is ongoing.

Hence, and for some as a complete surprise, NEMA reacted by raising matters of concern to them over the present exploration, pointing out the disposal practices of some of the oil companies in respect of drilling mud and “cuttings,” but reportedly also turning their attention now to disaster preparedness and the measures and technologies put into place by the oil companies to deal with a worst-case scenario in Uganda, should ever such an accident happen.

Much of Uganda’s oil wealth has been found along the Albertine Graben where fragile ecosystems presently exist and great biodiversity has attracted numerous tourist visitors to the various national parks and game reserves located along the rift valley and its lakes.

NEMA is expected to review all emergency procedures, taking into account the latest lessons taught by the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, where clearly the company initially downplayed the true extent of the damage to their installation and the quantity of the leak, very likely delaying a swifter and more comprehensive response from US government agencies, notwithstanding the fact that it is BP which is legally responsible to the fullest extent. If foreign technical advice from environmental watchdogs, and the findings and recommendations of the unfolding inquiry in the United States will find their way into the NEMA deliberations, is still to be seen, although highly recommended.

NEMA’s action has compelled several of the licensed oil exploration companies to store, for the time being, the toxic drilling mud and cuttings in steel containers, until a safe method of disposal can be established, and it has been learned that attempts to “evaporate” the potentially deadly mixture have failed, leaving oil company executives scratching their heads, while looking for other options.

Meanwhile, efforts to have Tullow Oil honor an earlier invitation to discuss relevant issues with them are so far falling on deaf ears, as after an initial willingness expressed in a mail to this correspondent by the CEO of Tullow in Uganda, no further replies could be recorded from them. Compared to previous experience with Heritage Oil, which was very forthcoming and accommodating to the media, the question now lingers in the back of everyone’s mind I spoke with, what exactly is it they do not want us to find out?