EA’s black gold rush: Exploration for oil and gas intensifies

Saturday February 25 2012

Above, workers undertake the first flaring test at the Waraga 1 well in Kaiso-Tonya in Hoima district in western Uganda in 2006 Picture:  Morgan Mbabazi

Above, workers undertake the first flaring test at the Waraga 1 well in Kaiso-Tonya in Hoima district in western Uganda in 2006 Picture: Morgan Mbabazi 


East Africa is in the middle of a major scramble for oil and gas resources as exploration firms rush to seal deals and optimism grows about more oil strikes.  

Last year saw at least 17 notable deals in East Africa, including five corporate ones worth over $250 million combined, more than double the number in 2010, which was just eight. Mid this year, Tullow, a wildcat oil prospector, is expected to announce the results of the wells it is currently drilling in Kenya and Ethiopia.

Exploration in East Africa, while still a risky “frontier” undertaking, is expanding rapidly, with active exploration programmes across the region, onshore and offshore. With over 40 public companies with material assets in the region, energy experts are projecting numerous attractive opportunities for investment with potential finds in coming months.

Jefferies Equity Research, a global researcher, estimates at least 16 exploration wells will be sunk across East Africa in 2012. This is in addition to ongoing drilling offshore of Mozambique and a combined seven operations onshore in Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia. There are also eight offshore wells in Tanzania and two in Kenya.

Prospectors are increasingly confident that Kenya could be the next big thing in oil and gas — experts say the geological profile of Kenya’s northern Rift Valley is akin to that of Uganda’s Albertine basin, where an estimated one billion recoverable barrels of oil have already been discovered. The two have similar origins — they were both formed when the Great Rift Valley was taking shape 20 million years ago.

“Tullow, in particular, is leading the charge to try to replicate the success it has had in the tertiary rift basin in Uganda,” says the latest report by investment analysts Jeffries Group.

To date, four large 3D seismic surveys have been completed in Kenya, covering nearly 6,000 square kilometres, both off the Kenyan coastline and in the arid north.

Tullow Oil has 1.1 billion confirmed barrels of oil in western Uganda and believes there are 1.4 billion left to find. Gas discoveries in the deep waters of the Indian Ocean have been made by mostly small to midsize firms. Consultancy Africa Intelligence (CAI) said East Africa is experiencing growth in investment from foreign firms keen to profit from the “new frontier” of oil and gas opportunities.

“If it can surmount certain obstacles, East Africa could become a major global focus for the oil and gas sector, with major consequences for the region,” said the South African-based research and strategy firm.

The analysts paint a buoyant picture of the region’s nascent oil sector. Last year, Jeffries predicted that East Africa could produce 5,000 kilotonnes of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) by 2030, as much as Australia will produce in 2020. This year’s report maintains the upbeat outlook.

“The acceleration of licensing, assets and corporate deals, geophysical data acquisition, drilling plans and resource discovery have all exceeded our bullish expectations from this time last year,” says the report.

Discovery of more oil and gas is likely to make East Africa more attractive to Chinese and Indian industry due to easier transport routes to Asia, compared with the Middle East, where oil tankers have to go through chokepoints at the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow channel between Oman and Iran at the mouth of the Gulf, and the Bab el-Mandab, between Djibouti and Yemen at the mouth of the Red Sea. The US, too, could become more interested in the region as it seeks to diversify it sources of oil.

Africa’s own growing consumer, markets, emerging industrialisation and urbanisation will become increasingly important for the sector.

Rolake Akinkugbe, an oil and gas expert at Ecobank Capital, said potential liquefied natural gas (LNG) projects in Tanzania could open up exports markets to the Middle East and Asia. “Tanzania’s neighbours are enthusiastic about the prospects for future gas exports to the region, though the government is likely to seek to prioritise the domestic over regional markets in the short-term,” he said.

The report estimates that there are over 50 companies operating in the region, of which 40 are publicly listed. The leaders of the pack include Total, which has increased its exploratory footprint in East Africa in the past two years with a $1.4 billion acquisition of 33.3 per cent in the Lake Albert development in Uganda, in partnership with Tullow Oil. Total has also acquired five blocks off the Kenyan coast, as well 60 per cent of a block in eastern DRC southwest of Lake Albert, and the exclusive award of acreage in the northern half of Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania.

Tullow Oil has assigned working interests in its Uganda operation to Total and China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), in a $2.9 billion deal. The firm has also acquired significant stakes in the area around Lake Turkana in Kenya, and has gone on to secure a 15-20 per cent stake in an area called Mbawa off the coast of Kilifi, where a well planned for 2012 will be only the second deepwater well drilled in Kenya.

Another company extending its portfolio is Texas-based Anadarko, which has been the leading player in the region’s budding natural gas sector. Anadarko estimates 15-30 trillion cubic feet of natural gas has been discovered off the coast of Mozambique in addition to numerous other exploration targets on the block, including oil prospects. Anadarko will operate two rigs in this region through 2012. It also operates five blocks in deepwater Kenya, and the first well may be drilled by late this year or early 2013.

Analysts expect further consolidation of interests this year as the initial exploration firms bring in better-funded partners with the expertise the smaller companies lack.