FEBRUARY 29 2012 17:25h

East Africa hits it big in oil, gas boom

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MAPUTO, Mozambique, Feb. 29 (UPI) -- East Africa is emerging as the new hot zone for oil and natural gas exploration, with major discoveries by Anadarko of the United States and Italy's Eni in the Indian Ocean off Mozambique and by Norway's Statoil off neighboring Tanzania.

Even war-wracked Somalia, further north in the Horn of Africa, is part of the drive for energy resources in the region, with a Canadian company, Africa Oil, expecting to start producing within the next couple of months in the northern autonomous enclave of Puntland.

But the big prize there is the offshore oil and gas fields that Somali officials say contain more than 100 billion barrels of oil, more than Kuwait. If that's the case, Somalia, torn by war since 1991, would become the seventh largest oil nation.

Deposits of similar magnitude are believed to lie under the Indian Ocean along the coast of East Africa, enough to transform the ramshackle economies of countries like Mozambique, an impoverished former Portuguese colony.

In Uganda, the big Lake Albert oil field, discovered in 2006 by London's Tullow Oil, is expected to start production soon, eventually reaching 150,000-350,000 barrels per day.

Lake Albert, which lies in the center of Africa between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, is estimated to contain up to 6 billion barrels of oil.

Most of the gas discoveries are off Mozambique and Tanzania but exploration is also under way in Kenya and Ethiopia. The Indian Ocean island of Madagascar is believed to hold "enormous reserves" of gas, industry sources say.

These resources are a natural magnet for Asian giants like China and India, which are gobbling up Africa's natural resources as fast as they can to fuel their ever-growing economies.

East African oil and gas could be shipped directly across the Indian Ocean to Asia, bypassing the volatile Middle East that currently supplies the burgeoning Asian energy market.

That would avoid such chokepoints as the Strait of Hormuz, the gateway to the Persian Gulf and a major oil artery to the Far East, which Iran is threatening to close in its simmering confrontation with the West.

But oil and gas exports could be imperiled by the increasingly bold pirate Somali gangs preying on shipping plying the Indian Ocean.

Still, major oil companies are falling over themselves to grab a stake in East Africa, largely by buying out smaller wildcat outfits which made major strikes.

One of these is Cove Energy, a London-listed company. It put itself up for sale in January after reporting one of the world's largest natural gas strikes in a decade, a field off Mozambique containing an estimated 15 trillion-30 trillion cubic feet of gas, more than Norway's entire reserves.

On Feb. 22, Royal Dutch Shell offered $1.6 billion for Cove's 8.5 percent stake in the highly promising Block 4. Four days later Thailand's state-owned energy company PTT Exploration and Production stepped in with a $1.7 billion bid. On Sunday, India's state-run Oil and Natural Gas Corp. offered $2 billion.

Cove's discovery in Mozambique's Rovuma Offshore Area 1 abuts the major find made in January by Anadarko in partnership with Eni, a field off Cabo Delgado province containing up to 30 tcf.

However, the true extent of the Rovuma Basin isn't likely to be known for two years when various studies are completed.

Industry experts say Tanzania has reserves of at least 60 tcf.

British Petroleum says that excluding Nigeria's gas reserves of 187 tcf, proven reserves in sub-Saharan Africa totaled 41 tcf at the end of 2010.

Mozambique, the fastest growing energy player in East Africa, estimated this month that international energy companies are expected to invest $50 billion over the next 5 years to develop a liquefied natural gas industry in the region.

Texas company Anadarko, which heads a consortium of Japanese, Indian and British investors, said it plans to set up a natural gas liquefaction plant and an LNG export terminal, together worth $1.8 billion, in Mozambique by 2018.

Eni announced in November it had found a "gigantic field" with estimated reserves of 22 tcf.

On Friday, Statoil and its partner, Exxon Mobil of the United States, disclosed the biggest discovery yet in Tanzanian waters, a field holding an estimated 5 tcf in the Mafia Deep Basin 50 miles offshore.