Oil dream: Residents seek pollution billions

Workers walk past storage tanks at Tullow Oil's Ngamia 8 drilling site in Lokichar, Turkana County, Kenya, February 8, 2018. [Reuters]

Kenya’s bid for oil in Turkana might be a poisoned chalice.

This is after Turkana residents, who include 13 minors, sued the government, Tullow Kenya BV and the National Environment Management Authority (Nema) claiming that the exploration has left their land and environment in ruins. 

The residents are seeking at least USD2 billion (Sh308 billion) in compensation, making the case the most expensive battle against the government.

The 46 residents have filed the case alongside a human rights lobby, Kituo cha Sheria. Their lawyers John Mwariri and Anthony Mulekyo told the court that the government and Tullow knew that clearing vegetation, soil excavation and drilling would harm the environment.

They lamented that Tullow dug holes and burrows that to date have never been filled up.

“The first respondent acted negligently and in violation of its duty of care when it abandoned the quarries, well pads and burrow pits without rehabilitation thereby posing danger to the children who may and or have drowned in the flooded quarries or gullies.”

“The said pits have also acted as breeding grounds for mosquitoes which cause malaria which is the greatest health threat to children of tender years. The Respondents are therefore culpable for exposing the children to health risks and other threats to life contrary to the best interest principle,” the case filed last Wednesday reads.

Tullow is also accused of dumping hazardous materials from the excavation, noise pollution, and failure to rehabilitate the areas it dug.

The residents, led by Elhanah Elimlim, claimed that the synthetic material used in drilling finds its way to the underground water.

According to them, Nema and Tullow got into a secret deal to change the drilling method without the involvement of the community.

“The petitioners aver that the oil exploration in the Turkana area, particularly the drilling methods deployed by the first respondent (Tullow) have caused or potentially caused contamination of surface and underground water, air pollution and land degradation in the South Lokichar basin area of Turkana County,” the group claimed.

Sometime in 2012, a happy Kiraitu Murungi who was then the Energy Minister and his Principal Secretary Patrick Nyoike sauntered into a press briefing room armed with samples of oil allegedly discovered in Block 10 BB in Turkana.

The two had come to announce the discovery of the black gold — potentially bringing to an end years of waiting for Kenya’s transport and economic savour.

“The Ministry of Energy is pleased to announce that initial results from the Ngamia-1 exploration well located in Turkana County in Block 10BB have confirmed the presence of light waxy crude oil.”

“This discovery is a promising first step for Kenya and is the start of a multi-well exploratory drilling campaign which will be undertaken over the next three years,” he said.

Kiraitu said Tullow had confirmed the Ngamia-1 exploratory well encountered more than 20 metres of net oil pay. However, the oomph and the fervor in Kiraitu’s eyes and mouth remained in the room as to date no government has come out to speak or talk about the project.

Tullow Kenya B.V was licensed by Nema to carry out a massive exploration in Blocks 10BA, 10BB and 13T, Ngamia 1, Amosing, Twiga, Etuko, Ekalesi-1, Agete, Ewoin Ekunyuk, Etom, Erot and Emukuya in Lokichar Basin in Turkana County.

 Along the way, Tullow signalled its intention to leave the project. However, it is yet to get a strategic partner following the plans for the exit of Africa Oil and Total throwing the project’s future into uncertainty.

Tullow Oil is the current operator of the project and had a 50 per cent stake, while partners Canada’s Africa Oil Corp and French Total Energies SE held 25 per cent each before the latter two firms announced the exit plan.

More than a decade after Tullow Oil made the oil find, the project is yet to be commercialised.