Thursday, May 23, 2024

Report says Okavango Delta won’t be affected by oil drilling in Namibia

Namibia’s Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Tourism has refuted claims that exploratory drilling for oil and gas in Namibia’s Kavango Basin by a Canadian company called Reconnaissance Africa (ReconAfrica) will adversely affect the Okavango Delta, a multi-billion dollar tourist asset that stretches into Botswana.

The Ministry made this assertion during a hearing that was conducted by a standing committee of the Namibian parliament. A report published by the Standing Committee on Natural Resources says that the Ministry clarified that the information being circulated in the media that ReconAfrica is exploring in the Okavango Delta is misleading.

“The Delta is about 260 kilometres away from where ReconAfrica is operating and is not in Namibia but in Botswana. The area on which the licence was granted is not a migratory route for wild animals, it’s outside protected areas,” the report says.

Of all the media houses opposing the exploration, which will be elevated to drilling if commercially significant quantities of oil and gas are found, the most vocal has been National Geographic. The latter is a publication of a United States non-profit scientific and educational organisation (one of the largest in the world) that is based in in Washington, D.C.

“ReconAfrica’s license area abuts the main river that feeds the Okavango Delta for some 170 miles. Wringing oil from rocks deep underground requires massive quantities of water, which is scarce in the parched region, and few other water sources are available for people and wildlife during the long dry season. Furthermore, any contamination of the river could be carried downstream into the delta,” National Geographic says on its website.

The Delta, which is the centrepiece of Botswana’s tourism, is speckled with high-end luxury resorts. These resorts, which host Hollywood A-listers and European royalty among hordes of the deep-pocketed who visit it, brings in a lot of money for Botswana’s tourism. Tourism is itself the country’s second largest forex earner. For this reason, the health of the Delta ecosystem is directly linked to the health of the national economy.

The case that National Geographic has made to its readers as well as the powers-that-be is that the Delta is “fragile”,  lies “about 160 miles southeast of ReconAfrica’s first test well” and that some “130,000 endangered savanna elephants—Africa’s largest remaining population—roam its lush islands, where they depend on the 2.5 trillion gallons of water that flow in each year from the north and west.” This is water that National Geographic says can be contaminated by ReconAfrica’s drilling.

Contrary to what the report from the committee of the Namibian parliament says, National Geographic has alleged that ReconAfrica’s activities have already adversely impacted the migratory route for wild animals. The company constructed a road within a conservancy without consulting the relevant authorities – like the board that manages the conservancy itself. The former chairperson of the conservancy is quoted as saying that elephants “are no longer using the route they used to follow”, have diverted to “unprepared villages” and are “destroying their crop fields.”

Of grave concern is whether or not ReconAfrica will use fracking, the practice of injecting millions of gallons of water (often treated with potentially dangerous chemicals) deep into the ground to release more oil and gas. According to the report of the Namibian parliament, the company cannot use this method because it is not licensed to do so.

“The petroleum exploration licence awarded is for conventional oil and gas, not for fracking. Fracking is more expensive and complicated process to produce oil or natural gas from non-reservoir rocks. The licence holder, in this case REN, will use environmentally-friendly technology to preserve the impacts of environment and water resources. The Committee did not find any evidence that the company uses or used fracking on the two wells drilled so far.”

The issue is more complex than that because, as National Geographic reports, neither Namibia nor Botswana explicitly forbid fracking by law. This could portend some quite interesting legal tangles down the road should ReconAfrica choose to use the controversial method.

Based on National Geographic’s reporting, two congressmen, Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Representative Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska have sent a plea to the Secretary of State, the Attorney General, and other top officials, urging a “thorough and coordinated investigation” into the issue of ReconAfrica’s activities in Namibia. The congressmen have stated that the US has an interest in protecting the Okavango Delta under the Defending Economic Livelihoods and Threatened Animals (DELTA) Act. National Geographic says that “if the US government were to find evidence of wrongdoing, it could result in fines against the company, criminal charges against the individuals involved, or a halt of trading for its U.S. share sales.”

On the whole, the Namibian parliament Committee has given the exploratory drilling a clean bill of health. The report says that the Committee did not find any evidence of underground water contamination.

“In regard to the risk of acquifer contamination, stratigraphic test borehole drilling makes use of mud rotary drilling method which poses no risk to groundwater contamination. Mud pits are lined with bentonite floor and plastic lining [and] all acquifers are cased off by two steel casings. Wells were drilled with organic and biodegradable, water-based drilling fluids, using the most effective casing and materials to ensure complete protection of all water sources and acquifers. These facts were confirmed by the Ministry concerned after they carried out an inspection to ReconAfrica facilities.”

The report also states that the oil-drilling operations are located far away from environmentally-sensitive zones.

“No drilling is allowed by law in protected areas such as conservancies and national parks. Reconnaissance Energy Namibia has committed to conduct exploration and possible production of oil in compliance with environmental regulations stipulated in the petroleum agreement. This would allow oil exploration and production activities to co-exist with tourism and other economic activities of the Region.”

The report further says that REN is not drilling near migratory routes nor any other area that would adversely impact on wildlife movements. “The first drilling site is located approximately 40 km from the boundary of the Khaudum National Park, 55km south of Rundu, 50 km south of the Kavango River and about 260 km from the Okavango Delta in Botswana.”

RELATED STORIES

Read this week's paper