Updated August 31, 2021
Updated with additional comments on the webinar by Jim Granath. These comments start under Figure 5.
Update August 19, 2021
Read this post first, then return to this update. Yesterday, August 18, there was presentation to the media about this project in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia. Windhoek-based geologist Matthew Totten Jr took the lead in debunking the claims by ReconAfrica. The presentation is here (Matthew starts at minute 7).
I conclude that my story below complements Matthew’s interpretation. He adds a number of details that I didn’t have. So his and my interpretation are essentially the same and were achieved independently of each other.
First published August 5, 2021. Updated August 10, 2021
The title of this story is paraphrased from several headlines over the last few months. There was public outrage over the fact that Recon Africa was allowed to drill in elephant migratory territory in northeastern Namibia. Much was also written about the company being suspected of being dishonest about its objectives and basis for investment. The Globe and Mail’s Geoffrey York (@geoffreyyork) wrote no fewer than four articles about the issue (here, here, here and here; all other literature cited is listed at the end of this blogpost).
I was intrigued. What is actually going on? The media focused on supposedly shady investment practices, but not really on the geology. So here is a bit of geologic background. I only started reading about this case because I was disturbed that yet another Canadian resource company was reported to be behaving unethically in a country in the Global South. It seems there isn’t a day that we don’t read about these sorts of issues and that really disturbs me as a Canadian. Whereas the reporting focused on ReconAfrica’s shady practices of attracting investments, I decided to try to understand the geology, because that is the basis for investment.
I studied the geologic literature relevant to this part of the world, including literature pertaining to oil and gas (O&G) production. I conclude that ReconAfrica might be exploring in what they call the Kavango Basin (hitherto undocumented by anyone else), but that this area might also be an undocumented extension of the well documented Owambo/Etosha basin. Their exploration target is either a previously undocumented Permian shale interval, which would likely require hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in order to produce hydrocarbons or a deeper situated interval of Otavi Group limestones, which might or might not require fracking. It is unclear which interval they are targeting because they report both ‘shales’ and ‘carbonates’ (=limestones)’ as their hydrocarbon target rocks. The Namibian government states that it doesn’t allow fracking.
ReconAfrica filed an Environmental Assessment Report in January 2020 which states that elephants aren’t sensitive to the vibrations resulting from seismic exploration (Risk Based Solutions, 2020).
At the time of posting this story (July 31, 2019), ReconAfrica has drilled 2 test wells and is now acquiring traditional 2D seismic data.
First a bit of basics on hydrocarbon exploration. Hydrocarbons (either oil or gas) are locked in rocks in the earth’s subsurface. How do they get there?
- Oil may be formed when organic rich deposits (sediments) are buried and – given the right temperature and pressure regimes over time at great depths – become ‘cooked’ and convert into hydrocarbons. Rocks are buried and twisted and turned (folded) and broken up (faulted) because the earth’s crust consists of tectonic plates that move around while oceans form and close and in this way rocks get buried in the deep subsurface and/or are thrown up as mountains. What kind of organic rich deposits may be transformed into oil? Algal mats (cyanobacteria) or microscopic single cell organisms that float in oceans and lakes and are buried after the death of the organism (before being eaten by a predator). We’re talking billions of creatures and millions of years.
- Natural gas is formed when marsh and swamp deposits pile up as peat and are buried under sufficient pressure and temperature to become coal. Coal may then degas to yield natural gas, given the right conditions. This process too takes millions of years.
Both oil and gas, once formed, are very mobile and – given the right conditions – migrate from their position under pressure in the subsurface to a location with less pressure, if the geology allows it. And in this way hydrocarbons may become trapped in what’s called a “Reservoir”. A Conventional Reservoir is a rock that has enough porosity (holes) and permeability (connections between holes) to hold hydrocarbons. If the rocks surrounding the Reservoir don’t allow for further movement of the oil or gas, then the Reservoir is sealed. If you sink a well into a reservoir, you create an opening to a medium (the earth’s surface atmosphere) with less pressure than at depth and the oil or gas flows upward. Bingo!
Until about 15 years ago, most oil or gas was recovered from such Conventional Reservoirs, rocks with enough porosity and permeability (not every conventional reservoir produces easily, there are lots of ‘stimulation techniques’, but that goes too far for this blog post). Then came the fracking boom.
The organic rich rocks that contain oil and gas are called Source Rocks – as opposed to Reservoir Rocks. Source Rocks are usually shales, hence they have very low permeability, and hence the oil or gas stays put. These rocks are ‘tight’. Fracking (hydraulic fracturing) is a technology whereby you sink a well into a source rock and blast the subsurface with fluids under very high pressure. In that way you create artificial permeability so that you can force the hydrocarbons up your well. The Source Rock has become a Reservoir Rock through this technology. These are called Unconventional Reservoirs.
Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is controversial because it requires a vast amount of water and chemicals injected under high pressure. After having done its job, the water is then contaminated and will have to be contained in tailings ponds until it’s cleaned up. It’s also really expensive because you need a lot more wells than when you produce from a Conventional Reservoir. Because even though you have created artificial porosity and permeability, the rocks are still tight and you need lots and lots of wells. And all those wells cause a huge disruption in the landscape (i.e. the earth surface’s ecosystems). Just travel to Bakken, North Dakota on Google Earth to get an idea. Because of these problems, fracking is banned in some jurisdictions (e.g. NY State, New Brunswick). The fracking boom has died down quite a bit because drilling so many wells is extremely expensive and the Returns On Investment (ROI) have been below expectations.
Namibia doesn’t allow fracking. This makes sense because it is a desert country, i.e. has water scarcity. ReconAfrica’s Area of Interest (AOI) in northeastern Namibia is a very thinly populated dry desert. What little water flows through there, is part of the headwaters of the iconic Okavango delta, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Geologists are employed by oil companies to predict where hydrocarbons (oil and gas) are ‘ahead of the drill’. Because drilling is expensive, companies acquire the maximum amount of geologic information using cheaper methods (hands-on fieldwork, seismic data, aeromagnetic data, gravity data) to get the best possible understanding of the geology before making the decision to drill.
Seismic exploration uses shock waves set off by the explosives that travel through the subsurface, bounce off differentially from rocks that have different densities and are then reflected back, thus forming an image of the stratigraphy (layers) and structure (folds and faults) of the subsurface. Good quality seismic data may also indicate the presence of hydrocarbons. In the distant past, before the availability of such advanced imaging technology, companies sometimes just sunk a well because they thought they understood the geology well enough. This process is called wildcatting. It doesn’t really happen anymore because the risk of wasting a lot of money on drilling in the wrong place is too high. ReconAfrica drilled two test wells (in May and June of this year) before collecting seismic data (which they started doing in July).
The Owambo-Etosha and Kavango basins.
A sedimentary basin results when the earth’s crust descends and surrounding high land erodes and the sediments drain into the newly formed topographic low. The land erodes and the sediments are deposited in the basin. The sediments may contain organic rich intervals, also called strata.
Other sedimentary basins may form when, given the right latitude and ecosystem parameters, limestone forming reefs and algal mats accrete along the edges of tropical seas.
Decades of research in southern Africa have resulted in a good understanding of its geologic history. One way to visualize that history is with a (schematic) stratigraphic column, which depicts the known stack of rocks from subsurface to surface in a certain region, plotted against time. It tells, schematically, what happened in that region over a long period of time. The stratigraphic column shown here covers 1 billion years of geologic history in the general area of the Owambo/Etosha Basin, indeed a very schematic representation.
The stratigraphic column doesn’t tell you whether the rocks are folded or faulted. In this figure, the three far right columns list the various depositional and mountain building events and the thickness of the different rock units. These columns add to the story.
What is the history of hydrocarbon exploration in this part of the world?
The Owambo/Etosha basin was formed as a result of tectonic processes. It contains a thick pile of sediments and was explored for hydrocarbons in the 1960s and 70s. Seismic data were collected at that time and five wells were drilled. Four of them were dry holes, one well (Etosha 5-1A) had an oil showing.
The drilling at the time targeted the 500-700 million year old Otavi Group which consists of shallow marine algal limestones. There was no life on land yet in those days and life forms in the oceans didn’t have exterior skeletons (shells). These cyanobacteria built up mounds of algal material. If you wonder what that would have looked like, modern day Shark Bay (a UNESCO world heritage site) in western Australia is an analogue for that kind of environment. Although these rocks have been buried for a very long time, they didn’t go “through the oil window” (they didn’t get “cooked”) and no hydrocarbons were really generated in the Otavi Group, at least not in the western Owambo/Etosha basin.
Millions of years passed after the deposition of the Otavi Group (lots happened, but too much to address here) and now we’re in the Permian, a geologic period that lasted from roughly 300-250 million years ago. At this point in time, what is now Namibia was situated at a mid to high southern latitude and the large Kalahari basin was formed. Most of the rocks here are deposited as sand and mud on land and in shallow bays and estuaries. The deep sea was far away, because this was the time of the supercontinent Pangea. These rocks are the rocks of the Karoo sequence. They have been studied extensively.
After the Permian, the supercontinent slowly began to break up. Great rifts formed in the earth (more or less the way the Great African Rift is formed now) and cracked the earth’s crust, forming localized deep basins.
By the early Jurassic, ca. 200 million years ago, continental break-up intensified and magma from deep down the crust welled up, forming so-called ‘dyke swarms’. One such dyke swarm is the Okavanago Dyke Swarm (ODS) which formed around 180 million years ago.
Several papers, a.o. those by Granath and Dickson (see references at the end of this blog post) suggest that the Karoo and post Karoo rift basins extend further into NE Namibia forming what they call the Kavango Basin. The existing literature doesn’t suggest the existence of such a basin: Corner (2000) even shows abrupt shallowing here. But a basin may of course have been missed in the past. The area was long the site of guerilla warfare until 1990 and got riddled with land mines; it was therefore very inaccessible. More recently acquired aeromagnetic surveys have unveiled the presence of the Kavango Basin, at least according to ReconAfrica’s geologists. In a June 2021 webinar, Jim Granath suggests an intricate tectonic model for the Southwest African Rift systems (I’m a sedimentologist, I can’t judge this model), resulting in what we call a pull-apart basin, called the Kavango Basin.
After 31 years of leaving the local population exposed to unexploded land mines, @ReconAfrica announced on August 31, 2021 that the Namibian police is aiding in land mine removal in the area…………… (really?)
What is ReconAfrica doing?
ReconAfrica’s founder Craig Steinke stated that he found a “vintage set of seismic data” and that this led to the discovery of a completely new play (a play is a stratigraphic and geographic interval with comparable characteristics favourable for hydrocarbon production) in the Permian Karoo stratigraphic interval and that the discovery and analysis of this set led the company to position their test well (they brought the drill rig in all the way from Texas – during the pandemic). They filed their test well reports but they didn’t include the log of the well “because they have no reserves”. This may be an odd statement, but it’s based on an independent evaluation (Sproule report, 2020) which uses only probabilistic methods in the absence of actual data. Quoting the Sproule report: “The leads on …. ReconAfrica’s leases …. land carry very high risk because all geological risk factors are poorly defined with almost no information available at the present time”.
However, the only existing seismic data set is the above mentioned 55-year old Owambo/Etosha basin set to the west. The easternmost limit of that seismic data set is about 400 km west of Recon’s lease blocks. In their Environmental Assessment Report (Risk Based Solutions, 2020), ReconAfrica states that this is indeed their seismic set. Seismic data 400 km away are their “exciting vintage dataset”? The information may be completely irrelevant to their own lease blocks when it’s that far away.
On the other hand, they do have more recent aeromagnetic and gravity surveys
Quoting the Environmental Assessment Report by RBS (2021): “Reconnaissance Energy Namibia has interpreted high resolution aeromagnetic data documenting a very deep untested Kavango basin with optimal conditions for preserving a thick interval of organic-rich marine shales in the lower portion of the Karoo supergroup. Reconnaissance Energy Namibia’s interpretation strongly suggests that the formational equivalents to the lower Ecca Group (Permian) will be preserved in the untested deeper portion of the Kavango basin. The company believes that these target sediments lie in a previously unrecognized Karoo basin along major trans-African lineaments that link NE Namibia to the better known Karoo rift basins in eastern Africa”.
Below is a paleogeographic reconstruction of the area during the late Permian when the Whitehill and Albert Formation shales were deposited
Whereas ReconAfrica didn’t publish the results from its test wells, it did write that it had an oil showing “in carbonates (limestones)”. In carbonates? The Permian Karoo Group rocks, which they say they’re targeting, are all sandstones and shales, with not a limestone in sight. In the above-mentioned webinar, Jim Granath states that they encountered (in the well they just completed in early June 2021) “800m of carbonates underneath 300-400m of Upper Karoo sediments. We think there might have been a lake there”. I’m a sedimentologist and I’d like to know what kind of kind of carbonates did ReconAfrica encounter? Because carbonates deposited in a lake (such as for example those of the Eocene Green River basin look very very different from marine carbonates, especially those of the 580-700 million year old marine Otavi Group! If ‘there was a lake there’ during the Permian, the carbonates (limestones) in the well would give ample clues about the organisms living in that lake and those organisms give away the age of the rocks quickly.
In their other literature, ReconAfrica also makes a big deal of how the Permian of the Karoo Group compares well, as an oil system, to the prolific Permian Basin of West Texas. The West Texas Permian Basin contains almost exclusively carbonates and the area at the time was just north of the equator on the western margin of the supercontinent. Paleolatitude and thus climate and thus conditions for carbonate deposition in what would become West Texas were incomparable to those of NE Namibia at the time. But ReconAfrica also says they’re targeting the Whitehill and Prince Albert Formations, which are shales (i.e. not carbonates). So if they say they have a showing in carbonates, does this mean they have actually drilled all the way down to the Otavi Group limestones? Then they state something about favourable conditions of these shales when compared to e.g. the “Bakken and Woodbine Formations”. The Bakken Formations are part of the Bakken Shale basin in the US Dakotas and the Woodbine Formation is a shale interval in the Gulf of Mexico subsurface in Texas. Both of these formations are tight shales, i.e. Unconventional Reservoirs and fracking has been used to produce oil from both.
Quoting ReconAfrica again: “The geologic team has defined a beneficial structural framework and depositional basin configuration utilizing a high-resolution aeromagnetic database. The company has developed a fully integrated structural inversion model for the entirety of the Kavango Basin defining a pull apart basin with targetable half grabens capable of housing substantial thickness of Karoo-aged sediments and reef-prone lower Paleozoic units” (bold by me). Lower Paleozoic or Proterozoic? Because the Otavi group limestones are late Proterozoic.
Producing hydrocarbons from shales (the Whitehill and Prince Albert Formations) would require fracking. ReconAfrica doesn’t have a permit for fracking and Namibia says it doesn’t allow it. ReconAfrica had its potential resources evaluated by an independent resource evaluator, the Sproule company. The Sproule report (2020), based entirely on literature, public data, and probabilistic methods, also states that these Formations are tight (i.e. would require fracking).
Note that the founder of ReconAfrica, mr Craig Steinke and one of the senior geologists, mr Nick Steinsberger both made a name in unconventional (tight, fracked) hydrocarbon production. And Jim Granath himself wrote at least two papers building the case for unconventional hydrocarbon development in Southern Africa.
No oil of any significance has ever been found in rocks (sandstones, shales) of the Permian Karoo Group further east in Botswana. One of the reasons for this absence of hydrocarbons may be explained by the presence of the Okavango Dyke Swarm (Le Galla et al., 2005). The Okavango Dyke Swarm is about 180 million years old. Its immense heat may have cooked the hydrocarbon rocks to the point that they got evaporated out of the rocks (‘devolatized’).
ReconAfrica isn’t the only company active in the area. Figures 3 and 6 show two other blocks. The blocks edged in red in figure 3 are leased to Monitor Exploration Ltd. MEL makes clear they’re exploring the Owambo basin. They state: “The Owambo basin is probably the most important area in terms of hydrocarbons exploration onshore Namibia. Its stratigraphy comprises rocks from Pre-Cambrian times till the Tertiary cover of the Kalahari Sands Formation with a total thickness up to 8,000m. Otavi Group, a Neoproterozoic carbonate platform, represents the main target”. MEL also states that “aeromagnetic data suggest that there are features associated with magmatic intrusions that may have affected the petroleum system.” Are they referring to the Okavango Dyke Swarm? Or are they referring to the younger Etendeka volcanics?
In between the two MEL blocks edged in red and the ReconAfrica blocks edged in grey are two blocks (edged in green) leased to ACREP, an Angolan Petroleum services company. ACREP completed its environmental assessment in 2017 and “started it survey of the Owambo/Etosha basin”. I haven’t been able to find more information and there is no other mention of the Owambo/Etosha basin. ACREP did a seismic survey in 2018 in their block (1818) according to ReconAfrica’s EAR (Risk Based Solutions 2020).
Viceroy Research (2021) blasted ReconAfrica’s enterprise for deceiving (potential) investors and from not being clear about whether they will need to use fracking. From what I can see, I think that if ReconAfrica finds oil in the – defined by them only – Kavango Basin, it will likely be in tight reservoirs that require fracking. I imagine they knew this all along and if that’s the case I imagine they hoped to twist the arm of the Namibian government to be permitted to use fracking all along as well. Fracking in this part of the world would be irresponsible given the high water demand required for fracking in this bone dry desert area, as also stated by experienced American geologist Matthew Totten (Africa Good Morning, 16 July 2021).
The Namibian government wants to attract oil and gas development, arguably as “a bridge to net zero in 2050”. Namibia has all of 2.5 million inhabitants and is mostly desert. With the right public investment policies, the country can develop its required electricity infrastructure without having to resort to Oil and Gas development. But Namibia is a corrupt country (see for example here and here) so there are probably individuals who hope to get rich from this scheme which is the real reason this is all happening.
Africa Good Morning, 16 July 2021, Geologist Matthew Totten on ReconAfrica
Catuneanu, O, H. Wopfner, P.G. Eriksson, B. Cairncross, B.S. Rubidge, R.M.H. Smith, P.J. Hancox, 2005, The Karoo basins of south-central Africa. Journal of African Earth Sciences 43, p. 211–253
Granath, J.W. and William Dickson, 2018, Organization of African Intra-Plate Tectonics.*Search and Discovery Article #30555, Posted March 12, 2018 . *Adapted from extended abstract prepared in conjunction with oral presentation given at AAPG/SEG 2017 International Conference and Exhibition, London, England, October 15-18, 2017.
Granath, J.W. and William Dickson2, 2018, Why not both conventional and unconventional exploration in Sub-Saharan Africa? Search and Discovery Article #30551 Posted February 19, 2018. *Adapted from oral presentation given at AAPG 2017 Annual Convention and Exhibition, Houston, Texas, United States, April 2-5, 2017
Haddon, I.G., 2005, The Sub-Kalahari Geology and tectonic evolution of the Kalahari Basin, southern Africa. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa, 360 p.
Hoak, T.E., A. L. Klawitter, C.F. Dommers and P.V. Scaturro, 2014, Integrated exploration of the Owambo Basin, onshore Namibia: hydrocarbon exploration and implications for a modern frontier basin. Search and Discovery Article #10609, Adopted from poster presentation given at 2014 AAPG Annual Convention and Exhibition, Houston, Texas, April 6-9, 2014
Le Galla, B, Gomotsang Tshoso, Jérôme Dyment, Ali Basira Kampunzu, Fred Jourdan, Gilbert Féraud, Hervé Bertrand, Charly Aubourg, William Vétel, 2005, The Okavango giant mafic dyke swarm (NE Botswana): its structural significance within the Karoo Large Igneous Province. Journal of Structural Geology, v. 27, p. 2234-2255.
Reeves, C.V., 1979, The reconnaissance aeromagnetic survey of Botswana – II: its contribution to the geology of the Kalahari. In: McEwan, G. (Ed) The proceedings of a seminar on geophysics and the exploration of the Kalahari. Geological Survey of Botswana Bulletin, v. 22, p. 67-92.
Risk Based Solutions (RBS), 2021, Draft environmental scoping report, Report to support the application for Environmental Clearance Certificate (ECC) for the proposed 2D seismic survey covering the area of interest (AOI) in Petroleum Exploration License (PEL) no 73, Kavango Basin, Kavango West and East regions, northern Namibia, 134 p.
“Sproule Report”: Kovaltchouk, A., Suryanarayana Karri, Cameron P. Six, 2020, Estimation of the prospective resources of Reconnaissance Energy Africa Ltd in Botswana and Namibia (as of June 30, 2020) for the purpose of assessing the potential hydrocarbon resources of the Company’s interests in Botswana and Namibia.
Viceroy Research Group, 24 June 2021, Recon Africa – no oil? Pump stock, 32 p.
Viceroy Research Gropu, 30 June 2021, ReconAfrica – Interview w Maggy Shino
Viceroy Research Group, 21 July 2021, ReconAfrica – unpromotional services
Viceroy Research Group, 14 July 2021, Recon Africa – polarization and disengagement.
Viceroy Research Group, 29 June 2021 ReconAfrica – Con Africa
York, G. Globe and Mail articles from 2020 an 2021 are linked above in the introduction