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International Herald Tribune: East Africa attracts hunters for oil and gas

EXTRACT: The shores of Zanzibar are attracting interest from international oil giants, like Royal Dutch Shell.

May 24, 2007

PARIS: Oil companies, both western and Asian, are hunting in earnest for oil and gas in East Africa, a still largely under-explored region, as energy nationalism in Russia, Venezuela and the Middle East closes off opportunities in more proven areas.

“East Africa, for a frontier area, is experiencing one of the highest levels of investment in the world right now – but we’re only seeing the beginning,” said Chris Matchette-Downes, vice president of business development at Black Marlin Energy, an oil service company based in Dubai and specializing in the region. About $500 million is being spent on research but so far only about 479 wells have been drilled from Eritrea to Cape Town including Madagascar, compared with as many as 30,000 in northern and western Africa, he said.

Significant discoveries of oil could help some countries in the region reduce their dependence on aid and expensive imported oil and help wean their residents from chopping down trees for household fuel. Exploitation, however, could be difficult and require costly infrastructure development. Except for a rickety rail network, not rehabilitated since colonial times, most of the region lacks pipelines and ports to export oil.

While some countries, like Sudan and Ethiopia, are showing early promise as oil and natural gas producers, Freedom House, an independent monitor, rated these two countries as among the most repressive regimes in the world. Many countries in East Africa, moreover, are in only the early stages of setting up a regulatory and legal framework for the oil industry. Oil companies worry whether their contracts will be respected.

Still, even at this early stage, oil has recently been found in Uganda and in Madagascar. Gas has been discovered in Tanzania and Ethiopia. Oil production is rising steadily in Sudan. Seismic studies and drilling are proceeding steadily in Kenya, Mozambique, the semi-autonomous Somali province of Puntland, and in the waters surrounding the Seychelles. The shores of Zanzibar are attracting interest from international oil giants, like Royal Dutch Shell.

But the geology of East Africa is more complex than that of the western side of the continent, so oil deposits will be more challenging to find in the east, seismic experts say. At the same time, a commercially viable, world-class basin has yet to be discovered in East Africa to rival the world’s top 100 basins, like the North Sea and the Gulf of Mexico.

Exploration and production in Sudan, the largest regional oil producer and an OPEC observer, which is pumping a modest 491,000 barrels a day, is dominated by China National Petroleum Company, Petronas of Malaysia and ONGC of India, since formal U.S. sanctions bar U.S. firms and deter western companies from operating there. Sudan’s future as a major oil producer will be determined by the country’s ability to stabilize the security situation and respect contracts, analysts say.

“Future production growth will depend on an aggressive exploration program in the south, which is stymied by the volatile security situation,” said Monica Enfield, Africa analyst for PFC Energy in Washington. The outcome of a tug of war over a contested oil block in southern Sudan is considered a bellwether for future foreign investment, Enfield said.

At the same time, a 2005 peace agreement between northern and southern Sudan to manage and split oil revenues 50/50 contains big uncertainties for oil and gas development, Enfield said. Uncertainties relate to mineral and land rights, the powers of a joint petroleum commission and whether the south will remain part of Sudan or secede in the next few years.

Because many ethnic groups in the south did not sign the agreement, the area remains dangerous; and tensions have been heightened by delays in the scheduled withdrawal of northern militias, said Egbert Hesselink, director of the European Coalition on Oil in Sudan.

Meanwhile, Madagascar is expecting to pump its first oil this summer, when a Houston-based explorer, Madagascar Oil, will produce and store a small amount of heavy crude from the island’s Bemalonga onshore field, before a government decision on how best to use it, said Alex Archila, interim chairman of the company. Madagascar Oil is evaluating the economic viability of producing oil from the field, which may hold as much as 10 billion barrels of heavy crude, he said. The company has also started a pilot study of how to produce heavy oil from beneath parts of the field that are being mined for bitumen. Exxon Mobil is also drilling for oil off the island’s northwest coast.

In Uganda, oil production is expected to start in 2009 from a field on the shores of Lake Albert, on the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo. Two independent oil producers, Heritage Oil of Canada and Tullow Oil of Britain, will produce about 6,000 barrels a day of light, sweet crude that will be used locally to produce kerosene and other fuels and to supply a small power plant, said Chris Perry, investor relations officer at Tullow.

Perry said that Tullow was also evaluating a series of recent oil discoveries to determine whether enough crude could be produced to justify construction of a $2 billion, 1,300-kilometer, or 800-mile, export pipeline to Mombasa, the Kenyan port which serves land-locked Uganda.

In the past two years, Tanzania has leased large swaths of its offshore area to exploration and production companies that include Petrobras of Brazil, Statoil of Norway, and Aminex, an Anglo-Irish company. Tanzania has sizeable reserves of natural gas, and a French exploration company, Maurel and Prom, announced a gas find there in January. But offshore exploration plans by oil majors, including Royal Dutch Shell, have been held up for years around the semi-autonomous islands of Zanzibar, until an agreement is reached on resource management with the mainland Tanzanian government.

Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya have started coordinating regional oil development through the East African Petroleum Conference, an intergovernmental association which held its third meeting in March in Arusha, the capital of Tanzania. In Kenya, China National Offshore Oil Corp. and Woodside Petroleum of Australia, among others, have committed to exploratory drilling programs, mainly offshore.

In Mozambique, one offshore well will be drilled this year in the Ruvuma basin, an area that straddles the border with southern Tanzania, said Matchette-Downes of Black Marlin. Eni of Italy, Anadarko of the United States, Petronas of Malaysia and Norsk Hydro of Norway signed up for offshore exploration acreage in the area last year.

In the semi-autonomous region of Puntland in northern Somalia, Range Resources, based in Melbourne, Australia, has contracted for all mineral and hydrocarbon rights in the region, said Peter Landau, the company’s managing director. Range Resources has opened an office in the port city of Boosaso and will drill its first of four exploration wells this year onshore, he said.

“Puntland is considered a geological mirror image to Yemen,” Landau said. Yemen, already an oil producer, is located across the Gulf of Aden from Puntland.

Ethiopia – which has proven natural gas reserves of 4 trillion cubic feet, or 100 million cubic meters – is also in the sights of oil explorers, despite ethnic conflicts there. White Nile, Petronas and Lundin Petroleum, a independent Swedish oil company, have all signed on to drill in Ogaden province – where last month the Ogaden National Liberation Front, an ethnic Somali independence group, which claimed responsibility for a recent raid on a Chinese-run oil field which killed 74 people.

Throughout most of the region, however, civic unrest is not a major stumbling block, at least during the exploratory phase. Unconventional geology, heavy oil, and the need to factor in costly infrastructure developments may weigh on development decisions, but the explorers, at least are upbeat on East Africa. “What we’re seeing is just is the tip of the iceberg,” Matchette-Downes said.

By By Sarah J. Wachter
International Herald tribune

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