Pursuing fossil fuels in Kavango Basin a ‘stupid bet’

The announcement by Canadian petroleum exploration company ReconAfrica that it has struck oil in one of three wells it is drilling in the deep Kavango Basin of the Kalahari Desert, northern Namibia, is a “stupid bet”, according to climate scientist Bob Scholes.

Scholes, a professor in systems ecology at the Global Change Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand, said that “Major new fossil-fuel resource development, at a time when the world has over-abundant supplies and an urgent need to reduce consumption, is morally and environmentally dubious.

“In the time needed to recover the investment, there is unlikely to be a market.” 

ReconAfrica has acquired rights to explore 35 000km² in the Okavango Delta watershed, a Unesco-designated world heritage site.

In a joint statement, ReconAfrica and Namibia’s ministry of mines and energy said last week that preliminary analysis of the data from the 6-2 well, the first of the company’s three-well drilling programme, “provides clear evidence of a working conventional petroleum system in the Kavango Basin”.

This prompted the response from Scholes. 

In a presentation to investors in January, Doug Allen, the senior vice-president of investor relations at ReconAfrica, said that the company’s plan was to treat the data from well one and well two as confidential until it could provide the market with a comprehensive data set from all three wells.

Opponents of the project, who cite grave concerns about potential risks to livelihoods, wildlife, nature, worsening climate change and contamination of water sources, said the announcement came as a surprise, given Allen’s presentation.

Andy Gheorgiou, a campaigner and consultant for Saving Okavango’s Unique Life, an alliance of Namibian and Southern African civil society organisations, activists and international groups, said there was a risk of the project becoming a stranded asset “or we could end up with a veritable white elephant in the Kavango”, as we put it. 

“From an environmental, climate and public health point of view it just amplifies all our arguments,” Gheorgiou said.

There is a serious need for a proper transboundary strategic environmental assessment for the project, which falls within the biggest nature protection zone on Earth — the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area — he said.

For investors, “anyone who’s interested should be aware of the fact that needed resources like water are scarce, and that there’s no proper infrastructure put in place”.

The financial risk related to the project remains high, Gheorgiou said, “not to even touch upon the reputational risk and the fact that the whole world is now watching these guys”. 

That ReconAfrica had published a joint press release with the Namibian ministry, “highlights how biased the process is”, according to Gheorgiou.

In ReconAfrica’s statement, Namibian Minister of Mines and Energy Thomas Alweendo, termed the announcement, “a great period for the people of Namibia, with the results of the well confirming a big potential for a very valuable energy resource for our country and, therefore, a significant development for Namibia onshore exploration efforts”. 

“The positive results of this well have provided us with the critical information required to unlock the country’s petroleum prospectivity, and is the first step in the process of locating significant accumulations. We can now confidently confirm Namibia is endowed with an active onshore petroleum basin,” Alweendo said.

Geologist Matt Totten said in a statement that, until local and independent subject matter experts “weigh in on Recon’s interpretation of a discovery, it’s a bit premature to claim a working petroleum system to the world”.

Verushka Dumeni, of Fridays For Future – Windhoek, believed that, “Whether the successful find is factual or merely a projection, the environment in the Kavango is in more danger than it ever was.”

Energy Voice reported this week that Namibian President Hage Geingob, in his recent state of the nation address, said that the country was an “attractive destination for oil and gas investors”, citing ReconAfrica’s drilling programme as evidence. 

According to the publication, Geingob said the participants were paying “serious consideration to environmental protection”.

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Sheree Bega
Sheree Bega is an environment reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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