Sunday, May 19, 2024

ReconAfrica, Namibia press ahead with drilling project despite new concerns

Research by four scientists at the University of Edinburgh, University of Free State and University of Stirling has failed to persuade Reconnaissance Energy Africa (ReconAfrica), a Canadian oil and gas company, as well as Namibia, that exploiting potential oil reserves in the Cubango Okavango River Basin (CORB) would be a catastrophic mistake. The Basin straddles Namibia and Botswana and exploration is already in full swing in the former.

In June this year, the scientists in question (R. Sheldon, S. Esterhuyse, A. Lukas and S. Greenwood) published an academic paper titled “Potential Groundwater Contamination from Oil Drilling in the Okavango” in an academic journal called Physics and Chemistry of the Earth. The abstract makes a grim conclusion: “Results indicate that contaminated groundwater from the oil lease areas could take 3–23.5 years to reach the Okavango River system via the shallow sandy aquifer, but in a worst-case scenario, contamination could reach the Delta within four days via structures associated with dykes and faults that serve as primary flow paths. Such contamination could adversely affect human health and the region’s ecosystems and biodiversity. We recommend prohibiting oil exploration and production activities within the CORB until future studies can determine the impacts of hydrocarbon extraction with greater certainty.”

At the time that the paper was published, ReconAfrica, whose business operations are limited to “the opening of the newly discovered deep Kavango Sedimentary Basin in the Kalahari Desert of north-eastern Namibia and north-western Botswana”, was in the process of recruiting an independent director to its Board of Directors. This past Tuesday, the company announced that Iman Hill has been appointed to that position.

“Ms. Hill joins the Board with over 25 years of senior oil & gas experience with extensive expertise in the technical and commercial aspects of the industry as well. Iman has a strong commitment to HSE, Sustainability and Energy Transition. Iman is a petroleum engineer and has held senior leadership roles at BP, Shell, BG, among others, during her career,” the company said on its website.

In welcoming Hill, Brian Reinsborough, ReconAfrica’s president and CEO, said that he looked forward to working with her “as we execute our growth strategy.” At least on the basis of the research done by the four scientists, this growth strategy could spell doom for not just Botswana’s premier touristic asset but for communities (the “river people” as they are called) who have subsisted on the Okavango River for centuries. In one respect, that has led to river-bound traditions and customs. If the River loses its practical usefulness to these communities, their cultures will die an unnatural death as a result.

CORB straddles Botswana, Namibia and Angola but at least for now, there is no indication that any exploration will take place in the latter country – which is already oil-rich. The scientists warn that contamination from an exploration site in Namibia’s East Kavango “could take 1.2 years to reach the Okavango River” and that contaminated groundwater from another site “was calculated to take only 3.4 years to reach the most sensitive area of the Okavango River system.”

Not that the scientists are completely opposed to the exploration. Their advice is that exploration activities in the region should be halted until detailed risk assessment studies of the water resources are completed.

“The governments of Botswana and Namibia should protect the communities, biodiversity, and the health of regional ecosystems during oil extraction by requiring rigorous EIAs before permitting any oil exploration. Until such a time as further studies are made, OKACOM should also consider imposing a moratorium on all oil and gas exploration and production within the CORB.”

OKACOM refers to The Permanent Okavango River Basin Water Commission, a river basin organisation established by the riparian states of Angola, Botswana and Namibia, to jointly manage water resources of the Cubango-Okavango River.

While the Commission recognises the legitimacy of petroleum exploration license issued to ReconAfrica by the relevant authorities in both Namibia and Botswana, it has also stressed the need to ensure that either member states complies with its Notification, Consultation and Negotiation process. In terms of this process members are obliged to prevent “significant harm” when exploiting shared resources of the River Basin.

Part of a statement that OKACOM released in July 2021 reads as follows: “The basic principle requiring States not to permit the causing of significant harm to other riparian states is laid down in international conventions, in customary international law, in national legal regulations and/or in cooperation agreements of countries sharing river basins. Thus, each Member State concerned should prepare and submit relevant information and notification to other Member States in the Basin as soon as possible in line with the forgoing legislations and guidelines. Further to this the relevant Ministers should be involved and adequately briefed and advised on the status of these initiatives for them to make the necessary decisions as appropriate and guide the process.”

In approving ReconAfrica’s operations, a Namibian parliamentary committee has published a report that essentially negates the concern that the scientists have expressed.

“The oil and gas exploration has overwhelming support among the locals, traditional authorities and nationals at large, thus the Committee recommends for the continuation of the exploration project to complete the exploration phase,” reads the Report on the Petitions by Save Okavango’s Unique Lifestyle (SOUL), Civil Societies in Namibia and Fridays for Future of Windhoek to Stop Oil Drilling in the Okavango.

The report follows a petition that SOUL presented to the government on February 24, 2021 in which the pressure group officialised its opposition to ReconAfrica’s exploration. ReconAfrica subsidiaries are called Reconnaissance Energy Namibia (REN) and Reconnaissance Energy Botswana (REB). The company has been licensed to explore an area measuring 8.5 million acres of which 6.3 million acres (or 25 500 square metres) are in Namibia. That leaves Botswana with 2.2 million acres.

On the basis of documents that were submitted to it, the Committee determined that REN complied with regulatory requirements of the Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Tourism and that its operations were guided by Namibia’s sustainable development initiatives. The Committee also satisfied itself that the Canadian company had engaged extensively with communities, local and regional governments, traditional authorities, conservancies and other interested stakeholders.

Being politicians and obviously mindful of the long-term political gain, Namibian MPs also play up economic benefit that will accrue to citizens. 

“In addition, the Committee was informed that RECON Africa has established an environmental, social and governance (ESG) and carbon neutral strategy with concrete performance indicators to demonstrate its progress. The company is confident that should commercial oil bear fruit, Namibia stands to benefit a lot in terms of jobs, royalties, corporate income tax, additional profits tax, annual land rental payments, training payments, goods and services spending and infrastructure development.”

As ReconAfrica, the Namibian government has been keen to move things along at a fast clip. A month after the research of the scientist quartet was published, the company received its Environmental Clearance Certificate (ECC) from the Office of the Environmental Commissioner, Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Tourism. The ECC authorised ReconAfrica to commence the drilling of an additional 12 exploration and appraisal wells, to unrestricted depths, in the Kavango Basin in order “to establish commercial accumulations of oil and or natural gas and natural gas liquids which were identified in the first three stratigraphic test wells.”

The company itself announced that its focus in the third and fourth quarters of 2023 (September to December) will be “developing and prioritizing its prospect inventory in order to execute a multi-well drilling program targeting both primary plays; the Damara Fold Belt and the Karoo Rift Basin, with initial emphasis on the Damara Fold Belt.”

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