A Canadian oil firm thinks it has struck big. Some fear it could ravage a

Except, that is, for the road. Recently widened, graded and ramrod straight, new roads like this mean change is coming.

Carved out of the trees and surrounded by a chain-link fence, that change comes as a shock: a giant oil rig towers above these flat lands, dwarfing the trees.

In this northeastern corner of Namibia, on the borders of Angola and Botswana, a Canadian oil company called ReconAfrica has secured the rights to explore what it believes could be the next — and perhaps even the last — giant onshore oil find.

The oilfield that ReconAfrica wants to harness is immense. The firm has leased more than 13,000 square miles, or some 30,000 square kilometers, of land in Namibia and neighboring Botswana.

The find — potentially containing 12 billion barrels of oil — could be worth billions of dollars. And some experts believe the oil reserves here could be even bigger.

“We know we have discovered a new sedimentary basin. It’s up to 35,000 feet deep and it’s a large and very expansive basin,” says Craig Steinke, the co-founder of ReconAfrica.

Behind him, a team is operating a thousand horsepower rig capable of reaching depths of 12,000 feet. Even with Covid-19 lockdowns, they are working fast.

Steinke is confident; he says a detailed aeromagnetic survey shows the basin is large enough and deep enough to contain oil. “Every basin of this depth in the world produces commercial hydrocarbons. It just makes sense,” he said.

ReconAfrica is calling this part of eastern Namibia and western Botswana the Kavango basin.

It’s part of a wider geological formation already known to geologists. Some 110 million years ago, it formed at the bottom of a shallow inland sea. Basins are depressions in the earth’s crust formed mostly by tectonic forces over hundreds of millions of years.

Think of an empty swimming pool; over a very, very long period of time, the pool is filled with material — leaves, sand, organic matter. Hang around long enough and you won’t see the swimming pool — just the stuff inside it.

When the sediment is sitting at the right depth and is formed by the right mix of organic matter, such as the remains of dead animals or plants, it can, over tens of millions of years turn into oil, a resource that has helped drive the world economy for decades.

Today, that hunt for oil is triggering a fierce debate.

Supporters of drilling say the find could transform the fortunes of Namibia and Botswana, and that the countries have every right to exploit their own natural resources. After all, so the reasoning goes, the developed world has spent the past century exploiting its own fossil fuel reserves and getting rich in the process.

Opponents are using a familiar argument against oil exploration. They believe a major find could devastate regional ecosystems.

And they have a powerful tool in the fight against hydrocarbons: In the face of the climate crisis, and in a region uniquely vulnerable to rising temperatures, should oil be exploited at all?

Staggering warming

Unlike neighboring Angola, Namibia doesn’t have an oil industry of its own to speak of — so far. Yet it is already being hammered by the world’s dependency on fossil fuels.

“Southern Namibia already has twice the global rate of warming. In northern Namibia it is a staggering 3.6 degrees Celsius per century,” said Francois Engelbrecht, a professor at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa, and a lead author on the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report.

Informal settlements on the edge of Rundu, the capital of Kavango East, one of Namibia’s 14 regions. ReconAfrica’s exploratory wells lie within the region. Credit: Peter Rudden

“The northern part of Namibia and Botswana and southern Zambia are likely the region in the Southern Hemisphere that is warming the fastest,” he said.

Multiple projections show that as the planet warms, these regions will warm twice as fast. Those increasing temperatures will have a specific impact on the region.

When warm air rises over the equatorial region of Africa it goes on to sink over the sub-tropics, creating the Kalahari high pressure system that inhibits rain. Most common in the winter months, this weather system creates the semi-arid environment of the area.

But as the climate warms, those dry spells will become more frequent in the summer months, Engelbrecht said. The change in weather patterns and the corresponding increase in heat will create an even hotter and drier climate. It could destroy the way of life of the people who live here.

Farmers move cattle within the area ReconAfrica has gained rights to. Climate scientists warn that in just 30 years, unless aggressive mitigation efforts are imposed, the way of life in Kavango will be untenable.

“Farming is already marginal. When it gets drastically warmer and drier, the means for adaptation will be extremely limited. The cattle industry will likely collapse,” said Engelbrecht, stressing that aggressive action on climate change could help reduce the damage.

While the future of climate change looks bleak, its impact is already being felt in Namibia. Farmers in southern Africa are already experiencing more frequent droughts and changing weather patterns that…

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