18 Jul 2018 Story Disasters & conflicts

Greasing the wheels of Kenya’s nascent oil and gas sector

For anyone interested in unravelling the intricacies of mankind’s evolution, Kenya’s remote northern Turkana County remains a researcher’s paradise. For several decades, the region has been the scene of significant archaeological discoveries that have earned it the Cradle of Mankind moniker.

In 2012, Turkana gained further prominence after the Government of Kenya announced the discovery of commercially viable oil reserves at the Ngamia-1 well. The find was the culmination of exploration efforts that began in the 1950s when British Petroleum and Shell drilled several wells in the coastal Lamu Basin.

The discovery of substantial oil and gas reserves provides significant development opportunities for Kenya and other countries.  Cognizant that exploration and production carry environmental and health risks, the Kenyan government is keen to put in place necessary safeguards.

The oil and gas industry is one of the largest greenhouse gas emitters particularly of methane, which is at least 84 times more harmful than carbon dioxide. Yet as countries and the global community transition towards low carbon, and green economies, global energy demand will remain dependent on fossil fuels for at least the next three decades.

In June 2018 Kenya launched a pilot scheme to transport some 2,000 barrels of oil per day from Turkana to the port city of Mombasa by road . Photo by REUTERS/Joseph Okanga

Kenya’s nascent oil and gas industry faces several environmental management challenges. These include lack of institutional capacity, infrastructure, finance, land access, legal and regulatory frameworks among others.  As the country gears up to export its oil and gas, it is important to enhance transparency and accountability, put in place sound environmental management measures and legislative and regulatory frameworks.

In May 2018, UN Environment, with support from the Government of Norway, organized a four-day training event on Promoting Sound Environmental Management in Oil and Gas Exploration and Production for Kenyan government officials and representatives of the civil society and private sector. Officials from ministries, agencies of national and local governments attended the training. The event was aimed at enhancing the participant’s understanding of oil and gas exploration and production and raising awareness about related environmental issues.

Kenya is no stranger to oil-related disasters. Between 1988 and 2013 it experienced five oil spills in Mombasa County. Call it happenstance, when one day after the training an oil spill occurred in the Kibarani area. The incident saw five cargo wagons derailed and discharge about 68,000 litres of oil to the ground.

“When the oil spill happened in Kibarani, we had just finished our training and had an opportunity to immediately put into practice the knowledge acquired from the experienced technical experts”, said Kenya Maritime Authority Environmental Officer Michael Mbaru who was involved in managing the incident.

An oil slick polluting a farmland in Ibeno village in Nigeria's Akwa Ibom State. A November 2012 oil spill at a nearby offshore oil facility spread at least 20 miles from its source, coating waters used by fishermen in a film of sludge.Photo by REUTERS/Tife Owolabi)

“I think there is also another missing link. We lack the necessary technical capacity to respond to onshore and offshore chemical spills related to the oil and gas industry”, said Mbaru.

To meet the broad range of challenges that emerging oil and gas producing countries face, UN Environment has developed a series of training courses within the framework of the Oil for Development programme.

"Without adequate environmental safeguards, oil and gas development can cause widespread air, water and soil pollution and adversely impact public health. Oil and gas exploration and production activities involve a range of chemicals, including explosives and radioactive substances. Related excavation activities also produce hazardous waste materials and greenhouse gas emissions."

"All of these can pose significant threats to the environment and human health, especially if they are mismanaged and adequate safeguards are not put in place,” said Marisol Estrella, Programme Coordinator of UN Environment’s disaster risk reduction work.

Since 2016 UN Environment and the Government of Norway have been collaborating to strengthen environmental management in the oil and gas sectors in 14 countries, including Kenya. Norway’s Oil for Development programme is a five-year initiative, which aims at reducing environmental risks associated with development of hydrocarbon resources through the provision of technical assistance, partnerships and capacity building.

On 19 July 2018, the Oil for Development programme will organize a webinar aimed at highlighting key environmental considerations related to oil and gas exploration and production. The forum targets practitioners in the oil and gas sector including policymakers, civil society, academia and the public.


Visit the UN Environment-Oil for Development Partnership website for more information.  

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