PARIS – A French court on Tuesday dismissed a case brought against TotalEnergies by activists contending that the energy company’s major oil projects in east Africa violated the human rights of the region’s inhabitants and posed environmental risks.
The court said the groups deviated from proceedings by presenting claims during a December court hearing that were "substantially different" those made in 2019 when they initially filed their lawsuit.
The six Ugandan and French groups said the company's oil extraction and pipeline projects completely or partially adversely impacted the lands of approximately 118,000 people in Uganda and Tanzania and that tens of thousands are still awaiting compensation.
TotalEnergies has argued that its planning “has been implemented effectively" and that its Ugandan and Tanzanian affiliates "have applied the appropriate action plans to respect the rights of local communities and ensure respect for biodiversity.”
The company said about 8,500 households are affected in Uganda, most of which have received compensation. It added that most of about 9,500 households have signed a compensation deal in Tanzania, where the project is less advanced.
In a joint statement, the activist groups said they “strongly deplored” the ruling.
“It’s a very unfortunate decision,” Dickens Kamugisha, head of one of the groups, the Uganda-based African Institute for Energy Governance, told the Associated Press. He regretted the court's ruling was based on procedural grounds and not on the merits of the case.
Juliette Renaud, from the Friends of the Earth France association, said the ruling is yet another opportunity missed by French justice "to put and end to multiple ongoing violations in Uganda and Tanzania.”
Pauline Tétillon, co-president of the French-based Survie group, said the ruling sidesteps the substance of the case which is the projects' consequences on people, the environment and the climate.
Tuesday's ruling was the first based on 2017 “duty of vigilance” legislation that makes big companies liable for risks to human rights and the environment — even if any infractions are committed by foreign affiliates and subcontractors.
Oil drilling has recently begun in Uganda in a field operated by China National Offshore Oil Corporation, CNOOC, as part of the joint deal with TotalEnergies. Production is expected to start by 2025. Both groups said last year that the total investment would be more than $10 billion.
Construction is to start this year on the 897-mile (1,443-kilometer) East Africa Crude Oil Pipeline, planned by TotalEnergies and CNOOC, between Uganda and the Indian Ocean port of Tanga in Tanzania. Authorities have described it as the world’s longest heated oil pipeline.
Uganda is estimated to have recoverable oil reserves of at least 1.4 billion barrels.
Some oil wells are to be drilled within western Uganda’s Murchison Falls National Park, where the Nile plummets 130 feet (40 meters) through a gap just 20 feet (6 meters) wide and the surrounding wilderness is home to hippos, egrets, giraffes and antelopes. The pipeline would then pass through seven forest reserves and two game parks, running alongside Lake Victoria, a source of fresh water for 40 million people.
That ecological fragility is one reason why some activists oppose the project despite assurances from TotalEnergies that the pipeline’s state-of-the-art-design will ensure safety for decades.
Ugandan authorities see the oil drilling project and the pipeline as key to economic development, saying oil wealth could help lift millions out of poverty. Some see condemnation of the pipeline as an assault on the country’s sovereignty.
President Yoweri Museveni vowed in September that the project would proceed, with or without TotalEnergies. Uganda would “find someone else to work with" if necessary, he said.
At the time, European Union lawmakers had passed a non-binding resolution urging the international community “to exert maximum pressure on Ugandan and Tanzanian authorities, as well as the project promoters and stakeholders” to stop oil activities in the region.
That resolution cited human rights concerns focusing on fair compensation for affected communities as well as environmental fears. _____
Rodney Muhumuza in Kampala, Uganda, contributed to the story.