The polluting oil activity of Perenco in the Democratic Republic of Congo

The usually secretive oil giant Perenco decided to expose its Congolese operations in the coastal town of Moanda to the press last October. In his worker’s helmet and blue uniform, country director Arthur Guériot had prepared his lines. “It’s a long-lasting operation,” he said.

In this nook at the mouth of the Congo River, tankers adorned with the Perenco logo faced the Atlantic Ocean as far as the eye could see. A few steps away, on the beach, a pipeline plunged into the waves towards an offshore terminal mounted by an imposing flare illuminating the blue sky of the afternoon. The next day, Perenco’s fleet would transport Congolese crude oil to the rest of the world, Gueriot explained.

Alexis Huguet/AFP
Moanda, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, is in a marine protected mangrove reserve.

While the director walked between the containers and the pump cylinders sucking up the oil from the ground, he highlighted the company’s know-how in the exploitation of “mature” deposits. End-of-life assets are the group’s specialty. Perenco has built its entire model on buying unwanted aging infrastructure from oil majors to keep it running to the last drop, pocketing billions in the process. Here, in the Kongo-Central region, the multinational operates around ten deposits bought from Chevron in the early 2000s.

Working closely with local authorities, Perenco invests “in education, access to water, electricity and infrastructure,” Gueriot said.

Despite assurances, accusations of environmental harm and malpractice continue to plague the company. Local associations, international NGOs, university researchers and the Congolese Senate have pointed to repeated pollution, contamination of drinking water and the increase in respiratory diseases. By compiling these different sources, Investigate Europe, Disclose and EIF have identified 167 pollution reports linked to Perenco’s activities over the past 15 years in the DRC.

In a statement, the company said: “Perenco acknowledges that incidents related to its operations have occurred in the past,” adding that these are “very localized minor and limited pollution incidents.”

Flaring in the heart of the mangrove

Perenco’s extraction area in the DRC adjoins a mangrove marine reserve covering 700 square kilometers of protected ecosystem. Home to tropical trees, marshes, manatees, hippos, monkeys and turtles, the reserve is defined as a “wetland of international importance”

To extract 25,000 barrels per day in this landscape of water and forests, Perenco often uses outdated and controversial methods. An example is flaring, a technique that involves burning the methane released during the extraction process. This gas, which may leak during the process, is considered the main source of global warming after carbon dioxide. In 2015, the Congolese government flaring prohibited nationally, but NGOs have complained that these restrictions are not properly enforced.

In Moanda, Perenco flaring is still common. For nearly a decade, the band has been burning gas tirelessly, day and night. With the help of Skytruth, an American NGO that uses satellite imagery to track environmental damage, journalists involved in this investigation were able to identify at least 58 flaring sources near or inside the mangrove reserve on a period of nine years. Using remote sensing software, the survey estimates that between 2012 and 2021, Perenco released two billion cubic meters of methane into the atmosphere. In 2021 alone, the oil company had a carbon footprint equivalent to that of 21 million Congolese. It has been blazing ever since, as seen in a photo taken in September 2022.

Environmental Investigation Forum
Ground-level flaring is a controversial technique that involves burning the methane released during the mining process.

Perenco said its contracts pre-date 2015 and are therefore not subject to the ban, but its gas management plan includes “significant investment made to reduce flaring”. A spokesperson added that “Perenco’s activities in Moanda are compatible with the mangroves” and “contribute to their conservation”.

The Congolese government did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

toxic fumes and pollution

Perenco’s gas emissions could also have serious health consequences. The company extracts oil from wells surrounded by a patchwork of fishing villages and scattered farms.

A 2020 study from the University of Lubumbashi found that the Moanda region had abnormally high cases of diarrhea, respiratory illnesses and benzene contamination directly attributable to oil activities.

In 2016, toxic fumes killed a two-month-old baby and a 21-year-old man, according to residents of Kitombé, a village in the heart of Perenco’s mining area. In a letter sent to Renad, a local NGO, they described how the deaths occurred after intense bleeding. According to Renad, local officials had written to Perenco a few months earlier asking for the flares to be made more secure in order to “save human lives”, but their request went unanswered. In Kitombé, a local farmer told the FEI earlier this year that “since the Perenco torches got closer, the palm trees have stopped producing anything, just like the maize and cassava fields”.

Reports of pollution allegedly caused by Perenco have multiplied over the years. Among the most common is the burying of drilling-related mud. As early as 2013, the Congolese Senate denounced this practice because the waste may contain hydrocarbon residues and heavy metals. Perenco’s management of drilling fluid “does not meet environmental standards for industrial waste disposal, it is simply buried in a pit,” the senators write in a report. A video shot at the end of last year, and sent to IE and its partners, indicates that the multinational has not put an end to this harmful practice for soils and waterways.

Perenco said the reports from the Senate and the University of Lumumbashi, as well as the claims surrounding Kitombé’s death in 2016, are all “false and defamatory”. The group added: “Drilling muds are treated in accordance with international standards and pose no risk to the environment.”

Other frequently reported incidents include crude oil leaks into the ground and surrounding waterways – at least six according to our records. “We have been repeatedly alerted to cases of crude oil spills and overflows in fields, pastures and rivers,” said Jennifer Troncoso, director of the Congolese branch of Avocats sans frontières.

This damage is not unknown to Perenco personnel. “Yes, there are leaks,” a former Perenco employee in Moanda told Investigate Europe and Disclose.

The former oil worker refused to go into detail about the “biggest incidents” he had to face. However, he clarified that these cases were “three quarters of the time due to human error”, and that sometimes, “a local resident saw a pipeline to recover oil in order to insulate his house”. In an apparent nod to Perenco’s strategy of using aging infrastructure, he said incidents were also occurring due to “the deterioration or obsolescence of facilities”.

Alexis Huguet/AFP
Workers at the Perenco factory in the DRC.

A legal challenge

The growing number of pollution reports led the NGOs Sherpa and Friends of the Earth to take legal action against Perenco in France in 2019. In Perenco’s defense documents, seen by IE, the group argued that the French company does not extract any hydrocarbon deposits, nor does it have any facilities in the DRC. Perenco France only provides support to its Congolese branches, the lawyers added.

In the French commercial register, the company even changed its corporate name in February 2020 to indicate that it “provides support services” to the “oil sector”. It was until then “the extraction of hydrocarbons” in “France and abroad”. But according to the former Perenco employee, environmental policies and incidents were still managed from the Paris headquarters during his stay in Moanda.

In response to the claims by Sherpa and Friends of the Earth, Perenco said, “The application process conducted by these organizations was based on unproven information.” NGOs tried to access more information from Perenco in September 2019 when a judge sent a bailiff to the class headquarters to Paris to search for documents, but the company refused him access. “We simply exercised our right of defence,” a spokesperson told IE and Disclose.

A reporter in the Democratic Republic of Congo contributed to this report. He is not named in the signing due to concerns for his welfare.

The complete responses received from Perenco can be read here.

#PerencoFiles is an ongoing investigation supported by the IJ4EU Investigation Support Scheme. EIF’s work for this story was supported by an environmental grant from the Journalism Fund

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