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Opinion | The Worst Place in the World to Drill for Oil Is Up for Auction

Oil drilling would be particularly damaging in the peatlands, where everything is connected by water. Oil spills and wastewater from drilling could destroy biodiversity, pollute vast areas and poison the water, fish and other natural resources upon which local people depend.

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This is certainly dystopian, but Nigeria’s Niger Delta provides a case study of the wider impacts of drilling for oil in a country with weak governance and high levels of poverty. Here, where Shell and others extract oil and gas under heavily armed guard, oil spills are common. They have left many people, whose livelihoods rely on the land and the water, destitute in a shockingly polluted landscape. (Shell has denied responsibility for any of the spills.) Naturally, there is continuing resistance to this exploitation, including protests, international court cases and armed militants repeatedly sabotaging oil production.

The potential financial payoff for drilling in the Congo rainforest is also becoming increasingly unlikely. The plummeting cost of renewable energy and climate policies to cut the use of fossil fuels are beginning to wean the world off oil. More than one in 10 new cars sold globally in 2021, for example, were electric, double the number sold in 2020. Any oil development in Congo’s rainforest is likely to one day be a “stranded asset.”

The predicament for Congo’s government is obvious. As one of the world’s poorest countries, it needs exports to gain revenue. But opening oil development in the center of the country could create a new region of civil unrest, adding to the long-term armed conflict in the east, potentially destabilizing the whole country.

Is there another way? Yes. Congo has major reserves of extremely valuable metals like cobalt needed for the global energy transition. Well-regulated mining that pays tax can bring the country dependable revenue in the 21st century, without oil.

More broadly, alternative approaches to oil development exist. Congo should map forest-dwellers’ lands and give them rights to those lands, using the community forest model. Then cut off the drivers of deforestation in line with making a prosperous country. Charcoal for cooking is one source of deforestation, and the charcoal is a major health hazard. Moving to cooking on electric stoves, powered by solar energy, solves both problems and is now price competitive.

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