Geologists' forum stirs debate on Kenya's natural resources

Geologist Joseph Ng'ang'a Kuria in a blue tie and GSK Treasurer Geologist Dr Anna Mwangi taking Chief Guest Nobby Macharia (right) representing CS, Ministry of Trade and Industries through various exhibitors during the GEOEACE 2024. [Courtesy] 

An intense national debate has erupted on the status, exploitation and utilisation of Kenya’s natural resources for social and economic development.

The debate arose when professionals, experts, policymakers and stakeholders convened for discussions last week at the biggest-ever gathering focused on the country’s vast natural resources.

National Oil Corporation of Kenya (NOCK) Chairman and former energy minister Kiraitu Murungi ignited the debate when he addressed participants at the Geo-East African Conference and Expo (GEOEACE 2024) that ended on Friday.

Organised by the Geological Society of Kenya (GSK) as it marked its 50th anniversary in conjunction with the Geological Registration Board, the conference involved key players in the oil and gas, geothermal, water, mining, trade, industry, engineering, architecture, construction and education sectors.

The conference theme Beyond 2030: East Africa’s Geo-Resources Portfolio for Economic Development and Energy Transition focused on the significance of natural resources and the role of geologists in sustainable economic development.

Participants deliberated on the intersection of geoscience, sustainability, and public awareness while addressing the challenges posed by climate change and its impact on natural resources.

According to the American Geosciences Institute, geoscience is the study of the Earth – its oceans, atmosphere, rivers and lakes, ice sheets and glaciers, complex surface, rocky interior, and metallic core.

This includes many aspects of how living things, including humans, interact with the Earth. Geoscience has many tools and practices of its own but it is intimately linked with the biological, chemical and physical sciences.

Mr Murungi, the immediate former Meru County governor, insisted that Kenya must develop its fossil fuel resources to address its fundamental development challenge – the huge public debt consuming 40 per cent of national revenue that has forced the government to impose heavy taxation, leading to the high cost of living.

“We must take bold decisions, become more aggressive, and exploit the oil discovered in Turkana. We are going to be here for 50 years, why should our citizens suffer when we have all these natural resources to pay debt, educate our children and buy medicine for our hospitals?” he posed.

Referring to the recent announcement that Kenya had sold a new $1.5 billion (Sh217.5 billion) Euorobond to pay off a large chunk of the $2 billion (Sh290 billion) bond of 2014 due in June, Mr Murungi wondered how much the government will need to generate to repay the new bond when it matures in 2031.

“It is impossible to repay foreign debts with revenues generated from renewable energy. We can’t depend on foreigners all the time to develop ourselves. Hydrocarbons are still important for development within the confines of the energy transition. When a man is hungry, you don’t ask for meat, you eat what comes your way, whether it is ugali or githeri!” he added.

The NOCK chairman’s argument seems to run counter to the global campaign by environmental lobbyists, the United Nations and business coalitions to phase out fossil fuels, attributing it to what he calls the “propaganda of green energy activists.”

“Amid perpetual debts, poverty and backwardness, Africa has huge and unexploited resources to transform our societies and economy even as we develop clean energy. We should integrate the element of renewable energy but drive it away from energy activism.”

With temperatures and sea levels rising, nations at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP28) in Dubai last December finally turned their attention to fossil fuels, a highly contested driver of planetary warming as they negotiated historic language to close out the era of coal, oil, and gas.

The final declaration at COP28 for the first time recognised the need to “transition away” from fossil fuels and a tripling of renewables (solar, wind, geothermal, hydropower and bioenergy).

Renewable energy is derived from natural resources, which are replenished at a higher rate than they are consumed.

Fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas – on the other hand, are non-renewable resources that take hundreds of millions of years to form. When burned to produce energy, fossil fuels cause harmful greenhouse gas emissions, such as carbon dioxide.

The unbridled exploitation of these resources exacerbates climate change, highlighting the urgent need for sustainable practices that prioritise environmental preservation and mitigate the detrimental impacts of human activity on our planet's delicate ecosystems.

Generating renewable energy creates far lower emissions than burning fossil fuels. Transitioning from fossil fuels, which currently account for the lion’s share of emissions, to renewable energy is key to addressing the climate crisis.

While recognising the great strides taken to scale up climate solutions over the recent years, the fuel phase-out campaign seeks to end the global reliance on fossil fuels and the ramping up of clean energy solutions.

Renewables are now cheaper in most countries including Africa, and generate three times more jobs than fossil fuels, according to UN Climate Action.

However, Mr Murungi urges caution amid the loud voices for the transition from fossil fuels, noting that 60 per cent of the energy mix is still sourced from oil and gas, 30 per cent from electricity, and renewables less than 10 per cent (solar 3 per cent).

“Renewable energy will not just come like manna from heaven. It requires heavy investment and the front-end costs are expensive. We must weigh the climate change concerns in light of the endemic poverty in rural areas. You cannot wean people off charcoal and firewood that easily,” he told the conference.

Geological Society of Kenya of Kenya President Joseph Kuria noted that geology serves as the foundation for understanding natural resource extraction, providing crucial insights into the distribution and composition of valuable resources such as minerals, fossil fuels, and water.

Kuria said geologists play an important role in the development of housing, oil and infrastructure development with the responsibility to explore and advise on the utilisation of natural resources and the energy transition.

He noted geologists’ valuable contribution through geosciences education in minerals, energy water and water development and the publication of cutting-edge research findings.

The society provides community and networking opportunities to advance careers and build relationships across the geosciences. It further links geoscience to society, building relationships across the geosciences.

The Chairman of the Geologists Registration Board, Prof Daniel Olago urged geologists to maintain high professional standards to safeguard the public against “quacks” whose actions lead to disasters such as collapsed buildings. The board has the mandate of registering professional geologists and regulating their conduct.

Prof Olago asked government ministries to allow geologists to do their work effectively.

“Geology is an observational science and geologists do a lot of work, often starting at 6am until 6pm and analysing data at night. Senior government officials need to support them,” he appealed.

Geoscientists play a pivotal role in navigating the global energy transition by employing their expertise to identify and develop alternative sources of energy such as geothermal, wind, and solar power.

Through innovative research, analysis, and collaboration, geoscientists contribute to shaping sustainable energy policies and technologies, driving the shift towards a cleaner and more resilient energy future.

Experts say human-caused climate change needs to be slowed, stopped and ideally reversed by meeting or exceeding the targets for emissions reductions set out in the Paris Agreement. Meeting these targets will require a fundamental shift in how we produce and consume energy. Geologists have a vital role to play in supporting this shift.

The geologists' conference also discussed the role of natural resources and geologists in sustainable economic development and their unique position in supporting policymakers, stakeholders and industry in the energy transition.