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Ghana Environmentalists Concerned by Oil Law Delay

President John Atta-Mills' government is drafting laws to regulate how oil revenues will be spent and how Ghana's environment will be protected, but that legislation has not yet reached parliament, causing concern among environmentalists.

Activists of Greenpeace dance outside the Ghana embassy to congratulate the Ghana embassy staff on the 'banning of the light bulb' in Ghana, in New Delhi (File)
Activists of Greenpeace dance outside the Ghana embassy to congratulate the Ghana embassy staff on the 'banning of the light bulb' in Ghana, in New Delhi (File)

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Environmentalists in Ghana are concerned about the delay in laws regulating next year's start of offshore oil drilling.  

Ghana's offshore Jubilee Field could earn the country as much as $1 billion a year when it starts producing oil and natural gas next year.

President John Atta-Mills' government says it wants to make sure the windfall benefits the country.  So it is drafting laws to regulate how oil revenues will be spent and how Ghana's environment will be protected.

But that legislation has not yet reached parliament, and environmentalists are concerned the delay could mean oil starts flowing before Ghana is ready.

Hannah Owusu Koranteng works with a non-governmental organization that is helping prepare communities near the oil fields.  In all 28 of those communities she has visited, she says there is still little understanding of the potential environmental impact.

"They did not see the environmental impact statement before it was discussed at the public hearing," said Koranteng.  "So if you ask about what their expectations are they still think that oil production is still going to bring a lot of benefit, and they have not really assessed the environmental issue."

Most of the people near the oil fields earn their living by fishing.  While the lights of the rigs are attracting more fish, the area around the platforms is being fenced off to secure production.

Both the government and oil producers have spoken of the need to protect the local fishing industry.  Kyei Kwadwo Yamoah's civil society group is working to make sure that is more than just talk.

"Whoever the fish provides livelihood for must be given certain incentives to operate," said Yamoah.  "We have formed community environmental management and advocacy groups in each district to build their capacity to engage on the oil, specifically they will be looking at the mitigation measures, how the mitigation measures will be implemented.  And they will also be looking at the issues of corporate social responsibility projects, how it fits into the community development agenda."

Ghana need look no farther than neighboring Nigeria to see how quickly squandered oil wealth can bring violence and environmental destruction.

President Atta-Mills says he is mindful of that example and is determined to learn from the experience of others.

Olive Igbuzor, the International Head of Campaigns for Action Aid Nigeria, says with proper planning, Ghana can avoid the misery that oil has brought to the Niger Delta.

"The civil society in Ghana should be able to engage with government to ensure that the basic principles of proper natural resources and environmental governance are put in place," he said.  "There must be adequate laws and policies put in place even before the commencement of exploitation."

Koranteng says civil society groups are still waiting to see the government's plans for resource allocation and environmental protection before large-scale drilling begins.

"It is important for us to look at all these things, define a policy for us to see how we want to use the oil resource and then ensure that we gain from it," said Koranteng.

A study by the aid agency Oxfam America and Ghana's Integrated Social Development Center says the transparent management of oil funds not only improves public spending, but gives the public greater confidence that their money is being spent wisely.  

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