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Britain’s Soco International said June 11 it would end exploration of oil and gas in the ecologically sensitive Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Africa’s oldest national park.
Soco has been conducting seismic testing in Virunga, where about half of the world’s remaining 950 mountain gorillas, as well as chimpanzees, elephants and hippopotami still live. In 1979, UNESCO designated Virunga as a World Heritage site but for the past two decades it has been threatened by fighting between the DRC army and rebels. Tens of thousands of Rwandan refugees live in the area.
Energy exploration is seen as a similar threat to Virunga. If the park was found to contain oil, drilling could pollute nearby Lake Albert, the main source of food for 50,000 indigenous families. Oil also could represent a prize in the DRC civil war and intensify the fighting in the area.
Seven hundred thousand people signed a petition urging Soco to withdraw.
Soco’s announcement followed mediation between the company and the environmental NGO WWF, but most of the pressure reportedly came from the British government, UNESCO and prominent individuals including South African Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, U.S. financier Warren Buffet and business magnate Richard Branson.
In a joint statement with WWF, Soco said it “commits not to undertake or commission any exploratory or other drilling within Virunga National Park unless UNESCO and the DRC government agree that such activities are not incompatible with its World Heritage status.” It said the company would only finish work on an existing seismic survey for the DRC government, expected to last about one month.
Nevertheless, there’s nothing in Soco’s announcement to prevent it from resuming exploration in Virunga in coming years. Soco CEO Roger Cagle said it might consider such drilling if UNESCO and the DRC change the park’s status, as happened with Tanzania’s Selous National Park.
Selous also was a World Heritage site, but in 2012 UNESCO accepted a boundary change suggested by the Tanzanian government that allowed uranium mining.
By Andy Tully of Oilprice.com
Andy Tully is a veteran news reporter who is now the news editor for Oilprice.com