May 22, 2024
“Neocolonial Oil Racket” in Kavango Basin is Not a Shakespearean Tragedy; It’s an Opportunity, and Namibia and Botswana are Right to Seize it
African Energy Chamber (AEC) Releases Q1 2023 Outlook: The State of African Energy
– By Godswill Odiong

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In August 2021, African Energy Chamber (www.EnergyChamber.org) Chairman NJ Ayuk wrote an op-ed about the promise of exploratory drilling by Reconnaissance Energy Africa Ltd. (“ReconAfrica”) in the Kavango Basin of northeast Namibia and northwest Botswana.
This was about six months after the Canadian oil and gas company released preliminary data from exploratory wells confirming an active petroleum system with the potential to generate billions of  barrels of petroleum on just 12% of its footprint.

Since then, ReconAfrica obtained a 100% interest in a petroleum license in northwest Botswana, an area spanning approximately 2.2 million acres. And, the company acquired a 90% interest in the petroleum exploration license in northeast Namibia, covering approximately 6.3 million acres, with Namibia’s national oil company, NAMCOR, holding the remaining 10%.

“For a region that has never produced a barrel, these developments could be huge, not only for ReconAfrica, but more importantly, for Namibia’s people,” Ayuk wrote in 2021. “Exploration and production activities will open the door to thousands of well-paying jobs for Namibians, not to mention the opportunities for building local capacity and technology sharing that come with the presence of international oil companies.”

But that op-ed wasn’t simply an announcement of ReconAfrica’s potential to foster economic growth and energy security in Namibia. It also was a response to environmental groups, which were blasting this project and the idea of oil and gas activity in the Kavango Basin, which includes six wildlife reserves and is home to a number of endangered species.

In his response, Ayuk pointed out that ReconAfrica had committed to protecting the environment where it worked and that the opportunities its discovery represented for the people of that region were far too important to sacrifice.

Today, the African Energy Chamber stands by those statements, even as the calls for ReconAfrica to halt operations in the Kavango Basin are getting louder — and nastier.

We’re thinking specifically of a March article in Rolling Stone magazine, “Will an Oil Racket Destroy One of Africa’s Most Sacred Places?” In it, writer Jeff Goodell alternates between accusing ReconAfrica of lying about its initial findings in the Kavango Basin and noting that ReconAfrica’s large discovery holds enough oil to “cook the planet like a marshmallow.” He suggests that ReconAfrica fabricated its discovery in the Kavango Basin to make big bucks and then goes on to describe how the company is going to destroy heaven on earth by producing oil there.

Goodell, author of “The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet,” likely had strong feelings about oil and gas companies long before he began Rolling Stone’s assignment. And in his article, he doesn’t try to hide them.

But the article doesn’t limit its disdain to ReconAfrica: It takes a shot at oil and gas production in Africa as a whole. In this case, it’s an argument we’re all too familiar with.

“The discovery is also poised to kick off an oil-and-gas boom in Africa just when it has become clear to most scientists and political leaders that, to maintain a hospitable climate, fossil fuels need to stay in the ground,” Goodell writes, describing his visit to a ReconAfrica drilling site in Namibia. “As we drove closer to the rig, I noticed a Namibian flag and a Canadian flag flying side by side on top, as if to suggest this rig were a symbol of international cooperation rather than one of planetary destruction.”

Wow.

We suppose the idea here is that if Africa dares to follow in the footsteps of Western countries and harness our own natural resources, the world is doomed.

So once again, we must point out that oil and gas production in Namibia and Botswana is not about greed, it’s about opportunity for the people there. It is not ushering in disaster, it is opening the door to energy security and long-term, sustainable economic growth.As for the accusations against ReconAfrica, they smack of a “let’s throw everything we can at ReconAfrica and see what sticks” kind of strategy. We do not doubt that Mr. Goodell believes he’s on a noble quest, and in that case, the ends justify the means. But the argument that ReconAfrica’s operations in Botswana and Namibia amount to nothing more than an elaborate con simply is not true.

‘Neocolonial Oil Racket’

You can get a glimpse into the mindset that guided Goodell’s writing when you consider the fact that his article’s original headline was “The Neocolonial Oil Racket.”

Even though Rolling Stone later removed it, we find the reference to neocolonialism extremely troubling.

Neocolonialism refers to former colonial powers exerting indirect control over African countries.

We have to ask, exactly how would ReconAfrica’s dealings with Botswana and Namibia be “neo-colonial?”

Is the idea here that “poor, gullible Namibian leaders,” for example, bowed under pressure from powerful external forces rather than spending years negotiating a deal with a foreign company that agreed to their conditions?

And, frankly, even with a new headline, you can still find condescending and manipulative content in this article. Look at how Goodell describes the business dealings of ReconAfrica founder Craig Steinke and Namibia’s national oil company.

“Steinke even persuaded NAMCOR, the state oil company of Namibia, to take a 10 percent stake in ReconAfrica, which only added to its legitimacy,” he writes.

Not only does this suggest that ReconAfrica, as a representative of a foreign global power, has bullied or tricked Namibian officials to get its way, but also that NAMCOR is rather clueless.

And if we’re going to talk about powerful external forces pressuring Africa, how about the pressure New York-based Rolling Stone is applying through its article against ongoing exploration and production in the Kavango Basin? How about Texas-based environmental group, re-wild, which helped pay for Mr. Goodell’s hit job reporting?

They sure look like foreign powers trying to exert their will on Africa to us.

As Ayuk recently put it, “It’s wrong for white liberals who have never been colonized to use a historically and emotionally loaded word like ‘neocolonialism’ in this instance. It’s wrong to imply that Namibians have been coerced into working with foreign corporations, and it’s wrong to invoke colonialism in the hope of convincing Africans to listen to a different group of people who think they know best.”

Serious Accusations

We also were struck by the ugly pictures of ReconAfrica and founder Craig Steinke that Mr. Goodell paints in his article. He suggests that first of all, simply because of where it was founded, ReconAfrica is likely a shady operation.

“From the beginning, there were plenty of reasons why a savvy investor might be wary of ReconAfrica,” Goodell writes. “For one thing, the company was based in Vancouver, Canada’s ancestral home of financial scams. The old Vancouver Stock Exchange (which has now morphed into the TSX Venture Exchange) was a notorious launching ground for fly-by-night mining companies and other penny-stock schemes. The city still attracts financial riffraff.”

In today’s era of political correctness, we find it interesting that Rolling Stone feels comfortable publishing authors who suggest that companies from a particular city should be eyed with suspicion.

Mr. Goodell goes on to argue that drilling in the Kavango Basin has yet to yield oil, and it probably won’t. Instead, he writes, the company is likely making investors rich based on false claims. He cites Harvard University Emeritus Professor of Geology Paul Hoffman’s statement that there are “good grounds to be skeptical” about ReconAfrica’s discovery and follows up with Hoffman’s own biased statement: “Mining companies are often better at drilling into investors’ wallets than they are at drilling into rocks.”

Goodell refers to National Geographic’s unfavorable coverage of ReconAfrica, which the company has formally disputed. He accuses ReconAfrica of camouflaging lies about its discovery in a shoddy report for “unsophisticated audiences.” He claims that ReconAfrica has already been taking a lackadaisical approach to protecting the Kavango basin during exploratory drilling. He suggests that initial news coverage about ReconAfrica’s discovery was nothing more than advertorial content that the company paid for, and he mentions a scathing report about ReconAfrica by Marco Rodzynek, who he describes as a financial analyst. (He does not mention that Rodzynek also is a climate activist who acknowledges, “I am an investment banker who became an activist because I cannot accept that our most precious natural assets are unprotected in a world rendered powerless by fake news, short-term corporate interests and complex global interdependencies.”)

Goodell’s article is filled with serious accusations that — we must stress — have not been proven.

The African Energy Chamber has a solid working relationship with Craig Steinke and ReconAfrica. Both have a strong commitment to not only producing oil and gas in the Kavango Basin, but to protecting the ecosystems there and cultivating a positive working relationship with local communities and businesses in Namibia and Botswana.

Leap-Frogging Isn’t the Answer

At least Mr. Goodell’s piece for Rolling Stone mentions Africa’s struggles with energy poverty — roughly 600 million people lack electricity in sub-Saharan Africa alone.

But, Goodell goes on to say that Africa can overcome energy poverty and grow its economy without fossil fuels. He cites Mohamed Adow, a climate-justice advocate and the director for energy and climate at Power Shift Africa, who told him that solar and wind would be cheaper ways to generate electricity than burning coal or gas. The best route for Africa, he and Adow argue, would be to “leapfrog directly to clean energy.”

We couldn’t disagree more. Wealthy nations around the globe have harnessed fossil fuels to industrialize and build their economies. The idea that Africa can take a different path and industrialize with renewable energy sources simply isn’t realistic.

Yes, Africa’s renewable energy sectors likely will grow in the decades to come. But as of yet, the continent only produces 2% of the world’s green energy.

What’s more, African countries vary greatly in terms of the infrastructure, skills, and technology that will be necessary for them to create enough renewable energy to meet their rapidly growing energy needs. Most have a long way to go.

If African states are pushed to give up their fossil fuels before they’re ready, they will lose a critical pathway to eradicating energy poverty (gas-to-power initiatives) and industrialization. And more critically, they’ll also be utterly dependent on funding, technology, and workers from wealthy nations. That is the last thing our continent needs.

No Neutrality Here

We believe Mr. Goodell is motivated by genuine commitment to protecting the earth, but it’s important to keep his bias in mind when reading his article about ReconAfrica and Namibia.

In one of his previous articles for Rolling Stone, “Biden Didn’t Fight Big Oil. Democrats Are About to Pay for It,” Goodell’s thoughts about oil companies are abundantly clear. “For Big Oil, this is also a complex moment. Instead of investing more in exploration and production, as they have done in other boom times, they are pocketing billions. Why? The simplest explanation is greed: They are taking the money because that’s what capitalists do.”

He also has written multiple books about climate disaster, including “The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World,” coauthored with Ian Ferguson in 2017.

You could argue that our chamber, too, has a strong viewpoint about African oil and gas, and you’d be correct. We have not been shy about expressing our strong convictions about Africa’s right to harness its petroleum resources or the important roles oil and gas still have to play in addressing African energy poverty and fostering economic growth and industrialism.

We’re just saying, we wouldn’t read Mr. Goodell’s materials with the assumption that he is a neutral investigative reporter. We wouldn’t assume the sources he quotes are neutral, either.

As far as concerns about the earth, we have never denied the need to address climate change. We have never said the ecosystems and wildlife in the Kavango Basin are not worthy of protection. We have simply argued, and continue to believe, that it is possible for Africa to produce oil and gas sustainably.

Namibia Is Pursuing a Balanced Energy Mix

Goodell also writes that, with Namibia’s potential for a booming renewable energy sector, oil and gas production there are unnecessary.

The thing is, shouldn’t Namibia make these decisions for itself?

Yes, the country has been working to build up its renewable sectors, particularly green hydrogen. But if you take a closer look at Namibia, you’ll see it’s working to develop a broad energy mix that includes both renewables and natural gas.

ReconAfrica’s discovery is one of several in Namibia. As recently as March 2023, NAMCOR announced a discovery with partners Shell and QatarEnergy in the Orange Basin offshore southern Namibia. This followed the Graff-1X and Venus-1X discoveries by Shell and TotalEnergies last year. Whatever happens in the Kavango Basin, Namibia is on the verge of having a large, successful oil and gas sector.

With that in mind, Namibia’s government is striving to harness its resources wisely by creating regulatory and fiscal policies that protect Namibia’s national interests while making the country attractive to international investors.

That isn’t a sign of global environmental apocalypse. It’s a reasoned pathway that many wealthy nations have traveled — and continue to traverse. We would add that Rollingstone and  many of the environmental groups trying to keep people in the dark in Namibia – and across our continent – don’t have the same struggles with energy security. In fact, in a move that balances environmental stewardship with energy security, the United States just approved an $8 billion drilling program in Alaska. If it’s acceptable for wealthy countries to perform this balancing act, there’s no reason why Namibia and  African nations cannot do the same.

Having clean air doesn’t mean we have to be in the dark.

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