Pipeline oversight: Are independent monitoring panels effective, truly independent?

Kilometer Point Zero of the Chad-Cameroon oil pipeline. Kome, Chad. Esso Chad file photo.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been scrutinizing documents on the safety and oversight of the Chad-Cameroon pipeline. As I wrote in an initial blog post, the ruptured ExxonMobil pipeline and subsequent oil spill in the Yellowstone River in Montana got me thinking about similarities with the ExxonMobil pipeline that crosses no fewer than 17 major rivers in Cameroon. I then wrote a follow-up post on pipeline oversight (or lack of).

So I was thrilled when I found out that Oxfam America was preparing a new report on the monitoring of controversial oil and gas projects featuring the Chad-Cameroon pipeline as one of its case studies. The report, Watching the Watchdogs, was launched yesterday in Washington, D.C. Among the speakers at yesterday’s panel were Jacques Gérin and Nadji Nelambaye who were both involved with monitoring the Chad-Cameroon pipeline.

Gerin, formerly Vice President of the Canadian International Development Agency, served as the Executive Secretary of the International Advisory Group (IAG) from 2001-2009. Nelambaye, who has been actively engaged with the pipeline project from its beginnings, is a representative of the CPPL (Commission Permanente Pétrole Locale), a Chadian civil society organization that manages a network of grassroots groups engaged on oil and gas issues.

The event was recorded and you can watch it online here.

The Watching the Watchdogs report looked only at Chad (where the oil is produced), and examined the work of the IAG rather than that of D’Appolonia, the company hired to conduct the external compliance monitoring (ECMG). As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, the IAG focused more on the poverty reduction objectives of the project while the ECMG’s work was technical (with particular emphasis on environmental monitoring). The Oxfam report does an excellent job of assessing the independence, transparency and effectiveness of the IAG side of the project monitoring.

I would like to see a similar study of the ECMG, but a number of the findings regarding the IAG are nonetheless pertinent to D’Appolonia’s work. The report cites a need for more local participation in monitoring, a more frequent (or constant) presence “on the ground” and a need for better communication of the IAG reports and their content with the local communities. These all apply to the work of the ECMG.

In fact, the final ECMG report specifically addresses the poor distribution of the ECMG’s work:

ECMG was surprised to hear that CPPN was not familiar with the ECMG reports. When checking in the websites where the ECMG reports should be available to the public (Esso, World Bank and IFC), the ECMG team found that the dedicated link in the Esso website is not correct; that in the World Bank site dedicated to the project the reports are not updated (last published report missing) and that the complete set of reports can actually be found only in the IFC link http://www.ifc.org/ecmg which is not easily accessible from the IFC home site. As ECMG reports are regularly disclosed, they should be available to the public in an easier way.

The Oxfam report goes on to discuss the limited effectiveness of independent expert panels whose findings and recommendations are — ultimately — only recommendations: the World Bank, Esso and the Chadian government can choose to ignore them.  Some of the IAG panelists reported resistance from the World Bank, the organization responsible for setting up the independent monitoring panels. The ECMG’s findings were not binding in any way, either.

One paragraph of Oxfam’s report touched on what is the biggest problem today: there is no longer any independent oversight of the pipeline project. No one is watching the watchdogs, because the watchdogs have all been retired:

While stakeholders disagree on the degree to which IAG recommendations influenced change on the ground, all stakeholders recognized that in some instances key recommendations fell flat, limiting the usefulness of the reports. At the same time, several Chadian civil society leaders noted that with the departure of the World Bank—and since bank loans ran out or were repaid— there is now no government monitoring and supervision on the ground at all. The company is left to self report (or not) any problems. Boukinebe Garka of CPPN/Union des Syndicats du Tchad explained that IAG had made proposals in open forums, drawing the attention of key actors and working to find solutions. He acknowledges that their recommendations did not always lead to concrete results but claims, “It was still better than it is now, because there are no more large debates in open fora. Now it’s a total ‘blackout.’”

When it comes to the environmental oversight of the project, the lack of independent monitoring is particularly worrisome.

Oxfam’s recommends that, “Independent monitoring expert panels should be required for any publicly financed extractive industry project that has or is likely to have a significant impact on communities or the environment. These panels should incorporate the best practices and recommendations in this report.” I agree and would add that environmental monitoring should be required throughout the project lifetime.

You can read a press release from Oxfam about yesterday’s report launch here.

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