Oil spill in UK natural harbour adds to fossil fuel company’s long list of international crimes against people and the planet

Aerial view of Perenco oil spill in Poole Harbour.
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This is the first part of a two-part series exploring fossil fuel company Perenco’s impact on communities and the environment across the world.

A fossil fuel company made the news this week when it polluted the waters of a UK natural harbour in the South of England. On Sunday 26 March caused a major incident in the second largest natural harbour in the world. The company currently operates 70 wells at the Wytch Farm onshore oilfield in Dorset. The Anglo-French firm spilled 200 barrels of oil and water from a pipeline under Poole Harbour. Using Perenco’s figures, iNews estimated that the company discharged at least 4,740 litres of oil into the water.

However, the spill was not isolated incident. Perenco operates in 15 countries across the world, and has caused environmental destruction and harm to communities in many of these places. Moreover, by contrast to the spill in Poole Harbour, the company has rarely taken responsibility for these ecocidal crimes and human rights violations.

Perenco: operations in the DRC

In the town of Muanda on the Atlantic coast of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), hundreds of oil spills have devastated the rivers and pastures of the mangrove region. Perenco operates at least 250 oil wells here. The exact number is unknown. Perenco states that, at its onshore fields alone, it has commissioned an average of 25 wells per year since 2002. This would put the number at somewhere over 500 wells. However, residents estimate they number closer to 800.

Unlike at Wytch Farm, Perenco has not released information on the scale of the oil leaks in Muanda. Investigative non-profit group Disclose states that records suggest Perenco has caused at least six crude oil spills. The company took over the end-of-life oil assets from Chevron in the early 2000s.

However, after 167 pollution incidents in the DRC, Perenco has failed to clean up the environmental damage. Instead, to get justice for the communities living there, in November 2022 two French civil society organisations took Perenco to court.

In other words, while Perenco is responding to the pollution they’ve caused in a wealthy county in the South of England, their operations continue to devastate multiple communities and critical biodiversity hotspots in the Global South. And they do so with impunity.

Read on...

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From a wealthy South England county to “the poorest oil city in the world”

Perenco has donated tens of thousands of pounds to Dorset conservation non-profits for their local work. The fossil fuel company has been doing so to ensure it can continue to operate its Wytch Farm well-sites through to 2037.

In order for Dorset County Council to extend their permits, Perenco had to agree to provide £1.7m to local community nature and biodiversity schemes. The contribution was to offset the:

residual adverse impacts of the proposed continued operation of the oilfields.

This is perhaps ironic, in light of the current environmental circumstances. Yet while it might be opportunistic greenwash, the local council has at least ensured that Perenco is investing in nature and the community in Dorset. Whereas, the community in Muanda have not been so fortunate. French NGO CCFD Terre-Solidaire refers to the town as “the poorest oil city in the world”.

In 2014, the non-profit wrote a report in French about the impact Perenco was having on the community there. The title of the report roughly translates to ‘Oil in Muanda: Cheap Justice’.

Investigative media outlet Multinationales paraphrased the group’s findings, which said that Perenco’s operations in the area did:

nothing to lift the inhabitants of Muanda out of poverty. Malnutrition and the absence of infrastructure and the most basic services (water, electricity, waste) remain the rule there. The official unemployment rate there is 95%.

Instead, it said that the report found that:

the operations of Perenco cause pollution, environmental degradation and social upheavals that affect the fundamental rights of these populations

Meanwhile, as Perenco fails to address the poverty that persists in oil-rich Muanda, the owners of the company have been making billions.

Perenco: billionaire lifestyles versus community livelihoods

The French Perrodo family own the fossil fuel firm. Ka Yee (Carrie) Wong Perrodo inherited the company from her husband in 2006, after he died in a hiking accident. In 2020, their net worth was US $3bn. Additionally, in 2022 the Sunday Times Rich List showed that the family ranked 38th richest in the UK. Moreover, throughout the pandemic the Perrodo’s have been increasing their wealth.

At the time of publication, Forbes Real Time Billionaires data showed that Carrie Perrodo and her family were the 224th richest in the world. According to Forbes, they have a current net worth of US $8.8bn.

Yet while Perenco’s owners swell their billions, the company’s operations threaten the livelihoods of multiple communities worldwide.

In Gabon, Perenco has caused multiple oil spills and pollution in the Étimboué region. In January 2021, a coalition of locals and NGOs lodged two complaints against the company in Gabon’s economic centre, Port Gentil. The local community had previously raised how the pollution was destroying people’s agricultural and fishing livelihoods.

In a video the community published on Facebook in November 2020, farmer Lydie Rebela stated:

For years now, there have been oil leaks all over the place. They spread throughout the area during the rainy season, when the polluted areas are flooded and the water carries toxic substances everywhere. My crops are gradually losing yield

Meanwhile, as the Poole Harbour Commissioners advised local harvesters to pause the sale of shellfish from the area, local fishers in Gabon continued to suffer the long-term impacts of spills. One local fisher voiced the impacts Perenco oil spills were having on their livelihood:

In 2012, there was a big pollution in the Nkomi lagoon, and many dead fish were found floating on the surface of the water. Since then, it is as if the fish have fled the area.

Even after the community lodged its complaints, in April 2022 Perenco caused another significant oil spill in the region. While Perenco estimate approximately 200 barrels of oil pollute the waters of Poole Harbour, the company discharged 300,000 barrels before containing a leak on the west central African headland.

Corporate justice over climate justice?

Globally, Perenco has endangered the health and livelihoods of multiple communities.

While its owners reap billions in profit, the company also exploits workers in its operations across the globe. For instance, it has discriminated against workers in both Cameroon and the DRC. In Columbia the company reportedly illegally outsourced work in an attempt to undercut unionising workers. Additionally, during the pandemic in 2020, the company put workers’ health at risk. Employees at one of Perenco’s offshore rigs in Trinidad and Tobago reported that they were being forced to work after testing positive for coronavirus (Covid-19).

Naturally, communities and supporting civil society organisations have turned to the courts for justice. Cases over Perenco’s operations in the DRC, Gabon, and Ecuador show the challenges of holding big oil to account. The powerful industry can retaliate, and in 2008, Perenco did exactly that when the Ecuadorian government increased the windfall tax on its soaring oil and gas profits.

Then-president Rafael Correa argued that an increase to the oil and gas windfall tax was necessary to account for:

the extraordinary benefits that the investors haven’t done anything specific to receive.

Most of the existing oil contracts had been agreed when oil prices averaged US $24 a barrel. In 2007, these had risen to US $90. When Perenco refused to pay the new windfall tax, the Ecuadorian government seized its assets. Consequently, Perenco initiated an arbitration under the France-Ecuador Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT) over its lost profits. Perenco won the case. As a result, Ecuador is due to pay US $351m to Perenco by the close of 2023.

The fight against ‘the impunity of corporate groups’

The arbitration with Ecuador and the litany of human rights and environmental impacts worldwide show how Perenco is holding communities to ransom. Whether it’s funding greenwashing in the UK or alleged collusion with repressive state forces and corporate courts in the Global South, Perenco has utilised every means at its disposal to ensure it can keep extracting every last drop of oil.

Human rights and environmental campaign organisation Sherpa and Friends of the Earth France continue to seek justice for the communities in the DRC. Executive director of Sherpa Sandra Cossart said that the Perenco case is:

emblematic of the impunity of corporate groups whose activities negatively impact the environment and the rights of communities. In Muanda, according to numerous sources, air, water and soil pollution affect the living conditions of communities. It is now up to the Court to determine the liability of the French company, taking into account notably its so-called environmental commitments.

The oil spill in Poole Harbour should be a lesson, and not just about the damage Perenco is causing to people and the environment here in the UK. The company’s environmental and human rights record internationally shows that ending fossil fuel infrastructure at home isn’t enough. Moreover, the communities Perenco is hurting across the world deserve our support. In the fight for justice against fossil fuel goliaths, we don’t win this alone – we do it together.

Part two of this series will explore Perenco’s impact on indigenous communities. It will also delve into the way it funds and allegedly colludes with repressive military forces to oppress local communities fighting the company’s extractive projects.

Sign the Greenpeace and 350.org petitions calling on the president of the DRC to stop the development of new oil fields in the Congo rainforest. As of January 2023, Perenco had yet to rule themselves out of the auction for these oil and gas blocks.

Featured image via Youtube/Sky News

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