Total knew it was fuelling climate change since the 1970s

TotalEnergies (formerly known as Elf, and then Total) was, in 1971, aware of the harmful effects of global warming caused by burning fossil fuels and participated in a sophisticated denial campaign of climate science, according to a research published on 20 October in the Global Environmental Change journal. 

The knowledge that Total had of climate risk was in no way different from the knowledge emanating from scientific publications of that time. But instead of taking the required action, the oil giant purposely chose their profit over people’s lives, stealing our time and future. 

Total’s knowledge of climate change did not prevent the seventh highest-earning oil and gas company from spending nearly five decades refusing to publicly acknowledge the negative effects of its operations and induced emissions on climate change. Instead, the company covered up the truth, funded misinformation, lied to their shareholders and the public, presenting itself as global leader in the energy transition. 

Today, Total, like Exxon, Shell and other members of the big oil club yesterday, were conscious that their products wouldn’t stay profitable once the world understood the risks associated with their operations and thus recruited talented consultants to develop strategies on how to communicate, or rather lie, to the public and their shareholders.  They orchestrated manipulation campaigns, propaganda and sophisticated greenwashing tactics to maintain a good reputation in the fight against climate change.

A major and influential player on the continent

After the discovery of oil reserves in North Africa and in the Gulf of Guinea in the 1960s, Total, Elf at that time, took the lion’s share in oil exploration to ensure France energy needs were fully covered. Through opaque contracts and providing support to authoritarian regimes in Cameroon, Angola, Gabon and Congo-Brazzaville, Total’s power and influence went beyond the energy sector and the French “backyard” of Africa. In 2020, Africa accounted for 25% of Total’s oil and gas production

This week’s revelations are reminiscent of Elf’s outrageous practices in the 1990s. Though only individuals were then convicted and condemned, that didn’t take away Total’s responsibilities in dodgy deals and other corruption scandals of that period that have been documented by Alain Deneault in his book De quoi Total est-elle la somme?

The author cites a long list of charges against the oil giant: weapons trafficking, forced labour, complicity in crime, corruption, tax avoidance, coups and financing civil wars. Thanks to the political and diplomatic support that the multinational has always enjoyed, whether in Paris or in African capitals, Total’s activities haven’t been seriously threatened. The French group has instead extended its reach beyond its traditional zone of influence. 

Uganda and Mozambique, soon in the France-Afrique club?

Total, with the support of the French state, is expecting an imminent launch of a mega oil project and pipeline in the heart of the Great Lakes of Africa. Ugandan oil production, in which Total is the main player, is estimated at 240 000 barrels a day. This production will be transported by an oil pipeline — permanently heated up to 50°C — stretching for nearly 1 445km through Uganda and Tanzania. 

The East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) will generate more than 34 million tons of carbon emissions each year, much more than the current combined annual emissions of both countries. The pipeline will open up critical ecosystems in the landlocked regions of Eastern Africa to commercial oil exploitation and will have disastrous consequences for people who farm and fish. 

More than 100 000 people are affected by the expropriation plans in Western and Central Uganda. People say they have not been adequately compensated, and the vast majority have yet to receive compensation. Water resources and wetlands in both countries also face significant risks, including the Lake Victoria Basin, on which more than 40 million people depend for clean water, food production and livelihoods.

A new report published by Friends of the Earth France and Survie and the Observatory of Multinationals demonstrates how Paris facilitates Total’s game in Uganda through multiple mechanisms of influence and support that have allowed the multinational to gain a foothold in Uganda. 

The French presidency, the ministry of foreign affairs, the French embassy and Alliance Francaise in Kampala guarantee France’s support for its oil projects in East Africa. Even military cooperation would be considered should it prove necessary to oppose forcefully the threats against the interests of Total and France. 

A scenario that is hard not to link to Mozambique, where the French energy group had declared force majeure on its $20 billion liquefied natural gas project because of the violence and growing uncertainty in the province of Cabo Delgado. Ugandan oil exploitation and the Mozambique LNG project are facing mounting opposition and fierce resistance from local residents and civil society groups over the serious human rights and environmental damage they are causing or threatening to cause.

Meanwhile, Total states on its website that it is committed to sustainable energy, well-being of people, environmental excellence and working to generate shared prosperity across regions. Emmanuel Macron continues to advocate for the protection of the environment, the application of the Paris Agreement and claims to break the old FranceAfrique ties that have maintained most of the French sub-saharan former territories in neocolonialism. 

At the same time, he is providing strong political and diplomatic support to one of the most controversial oil projects of our time. An inconceivable and unjustifiable risky adventure from all points of view: human rights, democracy, climate and biodiversity protection which exposes the hypocrisy, double-language and lies of Macron and his business partner, Patrick Pouyanne, chairperson and chief executive of TotalEnergies.

What should we do?

As powerful as it can be, Total needs people, money and has to protect its reputation. That’s where we global concerned citizens can demonstrate our power to bring down one of the most dangerous and manipulative multinationals of our time. By sharing the truth about Total, boycotting its fuel stations, exposing its flagrant lies, disasters and tragedies behind EACOP, Mozambique LNG and Arctic LNG in Russia, Total will feel the heat. Even better, by ensuring that all commercial banks that have been financing Total and its projects are aware of the awful operations of its client and stop immediately to give it new loans, Total won’t have many choices than ceasing developing new fossil fuel projects and paying compensation for the several human, ecological and climate damage caused. 

Keep the powerful accountable

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Landry Ninteretse
Landry Ninteretse
Free lance journalist, Peacebuilder, Climate change activist at 350 Africa.

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