Oil exploration in the North: moving from guess-work to hard work - Part 1

In spite of several short comings in the quality of hydrocarbon exploration programme by the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) in the Lake Chad Basin or North-East sub-region, over two decades ago, as stated in many accounts, oil was found but in less commercially viable quantity however, gas was discovered in large quantities in the region.

Unfortunately, in the 80’s nearly every investor then wanted liquid and not gas, because of the inherent financial implications of gas production. Therefore, the opportunity to transform the relatively poor north-east region in Nigeria into a petroleum belt like the Niger- Delta Region became tantamount to wishing for the impossibility by many indigenes of the area. But however, since gas is now the energy of the much talked about future global economy. Obviously, Lake Chad offers a lot for economic development of Nigeria.

The Lake Chad Basin is a large intracratonic basin that covers parts of Cameroon, Central Africa Republic, Chad, Niger and North-East Nigeria, where it is referred to as the Borno Basin. The Borno Bain is about a tenth of the Lake-Chad’s total area of 233,500 km1. Hydrocarbon exploration by the NNPC, which carried out the search for oil in the region in the 1980’s into the 90’s through its frontier exploration services, (FES), the precursor to the Direct Exploration Services (DES) have drilled 23 wells in the Nigerian sector of the Chad Basin and gas shows were encountered.

As a result of this, many aspects of the exploration programme were temporarily suspended and the vast amount of data accumulated over the years are being evaluated to enable the Federal Government define a more realistic and pragmatic roadmap for future exploration activities in the region.

According to Professor Solomon Abaa of the Petroleum Technology Development Fund (PTDF centre), department of Geology University of Maiduguri said, “The general poor knowledge of the sub surface geology of the Nigerian sector of the Chad basin especially with respect to source rock development and the general petroleum system information may have been partly responsible for the unsuccessful result in the exploration campaigns so far” said Abaa. Other critics added that, the depth involved in the exploration work in the Borno Basin was very shallow to have produced any expected result with respect to oil.

As to whether or not the 23 wells that have so far been drilled in the region have met required depth for successful exploration? A researcher and co-author of a book on oil exploration in Northern Nigeria Mr. Nkemjika said, available evidence which suggest that all the companies involved in oil exploration enterprise in the Chad basin and Benue Trough, drilled only shallow wells whose depths were not consistent with the average sediment thickness in the area.

According to this researcher, scientific studies have conclusively indicated that sedimentary rocks in the Benue Trough and the Chad basin lie 6,000 meters below the earth surface. However, the deepest wells drilled by oil companies reached depths of less than 3,000 meters” Mr. Nkemjika argued.

To further buttress this line of argument, E. A. Okuson of the Federal University of Technology Minna said, “Only the Kinasar – 1 well reached the basement, out of the many wells drilled in the basin. The well reached a depth of 4.6 km and penetrated the entire cretaceous sediments. Other wells were terminated earlier, hence the bottomed either in the Fika Shale, Gongila or Bima formations” said Okusun.

According to some geologist in the University of Maiduguri, the first well in the Benue Trough Kolmani River – 1, drilled by Shell Nigeria exploration and production company to a depth of about 3,000m in 1999 encountered some 33B standard cubic feet of gas and little oil. While the Kuzari – 1 and Nasara – 1 in the area drilled respectively by ELF Petroleum Nigeria limited (Total finaELF) in 1999 to a depth of 1,666m and Chevron Nigeria limited in 2000 to a depth of about 1,700m were both dry.

For many critics, the failure for oil production in the north-east have little to do with high cost of exploration vis-à-vis availability, which is always a factor worldwide, but according to them, The politics of north versus South was indicative of the biggest complain. But this line of thought was quick to receive condemnation during the course of filling this report.

“How can the South undermine the discovery of oil in the North even if we (Southerners) dominates the oil and gas sector in the country, the North have produced nearly all the leaders Nigeria have had since independence, so its impossible” said a top NNPC staff and a Yoruba by tribe.

It is not a question of politics but rather the lack of patriotism and political will of our leaders. During the exploration works many people were interested on kick backs and other corrupt practices from contractors and in government operations, than the discovery of oil itself” said the top NNPC official who pleaded for anonymity.

According to Professor Abaa, there is a real possibility that Kerogen – rich non - marine based Albian Aptian basin Lacustine Source rocks, which Sunday Trust found out that these constituents are unmistakable indicators in the discovery of oil in the Doba basin or in the Republic of Chad’s sector of Lake Chad where oil production has since commenced could be present in the deepest section of the Nigerian sector of the lake as well, which have not yet been penetrated because of the depth involved” said Abaa, who criticized those that said the Lake Chad basin is sloppy that Nigeria’s position in the basin is disadvantaged, are being ignorant of the entire region “What we have here is rock oil” he intoned.

According to experts, unless the Federal government shifts from its old fashion exploration methods to a more modern 3-D method of seismic data acquisition, the chance of oil discovery will remain very slim. However, another line of argument attributed to the “Low success” in the oil exploration activities in the region in a letter written by 3 experts, indigenous to the state to the former Executive Governor Late Mala Kachallah stated that, “The whole exploration job was handled by staff of the FES who, though theoretically qualified, possessed very little practical experience in undertaking this kind of complex exploration job.

The letter also stated that funding for the project was no where near what was required. “There has always been problem of funding of Lake-Chad project within the NNPC. Must of the work was funded through virement from NAPIMS internal budget with no Federal direct allocation. The funding situation has been so pathetic that presently (as at then) the indebtedness to contractors stands at over 16 million US dollars, said the letter.

Although, a former Minister of State for Petroleum who is an indigene of Lake Chad and a guardian Connoisseur to oil exploration activities in the area, Engineer Ibrahim Alli said, over one billion US dollars was expended in the exploration activities, and in as much as people will say where have the money gone to, “I think a lot of data have been gathered over the years” which have been translated into actual sales by interested companies like the Chinese ventures and the NNDC Engineer Alli said “there is an element of truth in the original evaluation” going by the response of interested bidders”.

But as usual, critics argue that, “a situation where most of the equipments and expertise on sight were on hire on a daily basis, one will expect that before such equipments and expertise are contracted the body responsible for exploration ought to have first of all mobilized everything and everyone on sight, but we had a situation where equipments were being paid for, at the same time NNPC was at asleep in the lake Chad“ said a retied NNPC official resident in the north- east who queried the one billion dollar expenditure for exploration in the region by NNPC.

However, Sunday Trust found out that, the optimism by many geologists in the region cannot be far-fetched going by the large volume of geological data that stated inter-alia; this sector of Nigeria’s inland basin is one part in a series of cretaceous and inter rift basins in Central and West Africa whose origin is related to the opening of the south Atlantic. Commercial hydrocarbon accumulations have recently been discovered in Chad and Sudan within this same rift trend. “Therefore every indicator points to oil and gas in the lake Chad basin” said the retired NNPC staff.

According to former President Olusegun Obasanjso during a state visit to Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State, at the twilight of his first tenure said, “the God Almighty is not the God of discrimination, if oil was found on the other side of the basin (Chad Republic) oil will also be found in our own side of the basin (Borno)” he boasted, adding that, his administration will step up exploration activities in the region.

The same applies to President Yar’adua during his campaign tour to the state; he too has promised a thorough investigation into the issue. Although, the renewed efforts and acquisition of oil blocks by a Chinese venture in the Bauchi/Benue Trough and the recent signing of a Profit Sharing Contract (PSC) between NNDC and NNPC in the Borno Basin, made the later more committed than the former leader in the exploration efforts by the Federal Government as Sunday trust gathered in the region.

Sunday Trust was on a reporting trip to several wells at kukawa, Marte and Mafa local governments etc and at Gajigana in Borno state. In each of the wells visited, the only signs of petroleum or the prospects of it, are only the tales by the poverty stricken villagers of how they dreamed of development from petroleum resources, which was made to be true by the sights of bulldozers, and other heavy duty equipments in their villages. But today, everything is gone, leaving remnants of fragile tarred roads constructed without drainage to support it. The blue peg platforms, which the wells lies, are only a semblance of boreholes because of the free flow of water since the early 80’s.

According to Engineer Alli, who justified his active participation in the oil exploration in the area by identifying each oil rig showed to him on the lens of a camera, at his 5th floor office complex in the Central Business District in Abuja said, nearly each oil well has an uninterrupted free flow water pouring out water that can be measured with about 43.2 tankers of water everyday, which now created a lake of some sort around each oil rig for many pastoralists and villagers to benefit from.

However, at Gumna village in Marte Local Government, the villagers claimed to have experienced spillage several times in the past from the lake but Engineer Alli said “it is either from the nature of chemicals used to lubricate the rigs or evidence of genuine presence of hydrocarbon” he said adding that he has experienced gas flaring in about 3 wells in the area in the 80’s before it was closed.

For these villagers, the coming of explorers in and out of their villages without giving them adequate information about ‘the status of their lands and the little or no compensation’ given to them seemed like a rebirth of another Niger-Delta in the north-east. Although, sources at the NNPC insisted that every villager was compensated adequately however, Sunday Trust is yet to establish this position and intends to investigate further.

For professor Abaa, many accounts have indicated that the Chad basin constitutes an extensive stretch of gas shores and with some 130 trillion cubic feet of gas; Nigeria has the 10th largest reserves in the world and second only to Angola on the African continent. According to Abaa, globally, natural gas being the cleanest of all fossil fuels is gaining more ground over oil as the energy of the future. With increasing tempo in gas utilization programmes that will primarily target gas as the main objective.

When such resources from petroleum are utilized and managed, villagers and farmers like Baba Goni Kasim and 43 others around Mafa and Marte that all claimed to have lost their farms either to oil wells or roads constructed to facilitate exploration activities may be engaged in lucrative economic activities to better their lives instead of considering taking up arms to settle their grouches with oil companies.

However Engineer Alli urged Sunday Trust to contact NNPC in order to ascertain the true position of things in the region in respect to the villagers and NNPC’s corporate responsibilities ‘because I know that people were compensated then’. But like the academics, getting any information from NNPC or DPR on oil exploration activities in the Lake Chad may require paying 200,000 US Dollars only for keys into the ‘viewing room’, like the other bidders of oil blocks, just to access information about the region’s petroleum reserves. “There is no free access to data, even to perused the data you have to pay” said engineer Alli.

Sunday Trust investigations revealed that NNDC is on the verge of signing an agreement with one of the world’s largest Gas Companies the GasProm of Russia, and the company has already taken position to sign a PSC with NNPC to take over parts of the Bauchi/Benue Trough and the Borno Basin. The Chinese have gone far as well, in respect to exploration activities in the region. All these have inadvertently raised expectations in the region and the north as a whole particularly, in the face of the break of law and order by militants in the oil rich Niger-Delta.

The question on almost everyone’s lips as Sunday Trust gathered is whether NNDC and the Chinese company can translate the potential demands for oil and gas globally into actual sales that would bring about development in the region, remains to be seen . However, in the coming weeks, Sunday Trust intends to inquire from the villagers, what are their expectations and find out from the companies, what are their plans and also know the level of preparedness on the part of government to provide enabling environment for development to thrive in the region.

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