On October 5, 2017, something strange happened at Kipeto in Kajiado County that hit national and international headlines. A flammable emission was accidentally found in the area by a borehole drilling company, something Governor Joseph Ole Lenku termed as the “hand of God.”
Joseph Malonye had contracted hydrologists to drill a borehole that was expected to boost his farming activities. However, 200 metres into the ground, the hydrologists came across a 'reservoir' of what they said was an odourless gas, and upon throwing a lit match at it, the gas caught fire, leading to the 'pedestrian' conclusion that this was natural gas.
The discovery was, however, fast dismissed as nothing special, dampening growing public expectation triggered by the discovery.
But hardly two years later, State agencies in charge of petroleum are back to the area for mapping after setting up a budget for the same - a pointer to the possibility of gas find.
The explanation then was that the borehole drilling firm had encountered a pocket of flammable gas that may have developed over time from shallow buried layers of decomposed animals and plants, and nothing more.
The Government said then that two reputable laboratories in Kenya and the US had confirmed that indeed the finding was nothing special.
The question now is, could the explanation that it was 'nothing' have been a ploy to keep certain interests and speculators at bay?
According to press reports, it was not the first time that emissions that resembled gas had been found in the wider Kajiado County. There was a similar find in the 1990s when a bilateral agency organisation, while drilling for water in Oldoinyo Nyokie close to Magadi, struck gas.
Following that incident, the Dutch agency took the gas for laboratory testing and found that it was cooking gas with some impurities. The borehole was, however, covered and abandoned.
A near-similar story unfolded in Turkana County where a hydrologist drilling boreholes in the area as far back as the 1980s found a “blackish liquid” smelling like kerosene oozing from one of the holes he had drilled.
Kengar Monena, then contracted to drill boreholes for an international aid agency, took the sample and on sharing the information with a few close friends, he was advised to stay silent owing to the 'sensitivity' of the matter.
In a previous interview with The Standard, Dr Monena said he waited for a regime change in 2002, and then in 2006, he took the sample to the Kenya Petroleum Refineries Ltd (KPRL), which tested and reported that the substance was “more likely to be fuel oil”, but KPRL needed a larger sample size to be sure.
With that, he started moving from one government office to another, particularly at the Energy Ministry, with the hope that he would secure an exploration licence, only for him to find out later that his information had elicited interest, and powerful individuals had moved faster than him to get oil exploration licences.
Surprisingly, the find at Kipeto had similarities to elements of natural gas. About 85 per cent of natural gas produced from conventional wells is methane, a highly flammable compound made up of one carbon atom and four hydrogen atoms.
It is colourless and odourless in its pure form. As the gas has no odour, gas companies often add a chemical to the gas to give it a distinctive smell so that any leaks can be detected.
Now, two years later, the National Oil Corporation of Kenya (Nock) has mobilised a team of geoscientists from both the corporation and the Ministry of Petroleum to study the area at Kipeto where the gas was found, raising hope that the water driller may have actually been on to something of interest to the country’s petroleum sector.
The Nock team embarked on the mission in June and is expected to report back with data for further analysis by the end of next month.
Natural gas finds in the area would be a significant boost for Nock whose block 14T, where it has been exploring for oil, is adjacent to the area.
Samples of the gas found in late 2017 were tested locally by SGS Kenya as well as Weatherford Laboratories in the US – and the results poured cold water on the 'gas find' but recommended that more tests be undertaken.
“Detailed analysis of the isotopic characteristics of the gas was done … the analytical findings from the two external labs are compiled and interpreted. To determine the actual source, more investigative work was recommended,” said Nock’s management in a note presented to its board.
“The Ministry of Petroleum and Mining provided a budget for the mapping of the area around the Kipeto water well that has flammable gas. A joint team composed of geoscientists from Nock and the State Department (of Petroleum) started mapping the area on June 2019. This mapping exercise is planned to take three months.”
The team is surveying a relatively small area measuring 28 kilometres by 20 kilometres. This is, however, an initial focus area expected to inform further developments.
“After analysing the data being collected, possible sources of the flammable gas will be identified, which will guide further works in the area, which is slightly off Block 14T concession boundaries,” said the note to the board.
“The initial plan is to acquire a gravity dataset in the area neighbourhood to the Kipeto well. The grid will then be extended in a 'fire-spread' manner to the rest of the survey area.”
Following the find, different stakeholders had been cautioned against too much optimism, noting that expectations, especially among area residents, should be managed. But now the experts reckon that the small pocket of gas found in the area was a positive sign and it should be a catalyst for further studies.
Nock’s hopes of finding gas come on the heels of finds made in Tanzania, which has 57 trillion cubic feet of proven gas reserves, the highest in the region. Uganda has the second-largest reserves in East Africa at a much lower 500 billion cubic feet.
Many of the finds made in Tanzania so far are towards the east, though there are some blocks offshore in the Indian Ocean and in the northern part of the country.
However, Tanzania has held back on moving to the exploitation stage despite the huge impact that the gas could have on the economy as it looks to get things right, including contract negotiations and regulatory frameworks, from the onset.
Tanzania is currently engaging international oil firms on the terms of development of a Sh3 trillion Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) project.
When President Uhuru Kenyatta visited Tanzania recently, he had talks with his counterpart John Magufuli on the possibility of Kenya importing natural gas from Tanzania.
Meanwhile, Nock is increasingly looking to play a more active role in Kenya’s fledgeling upstream oil sector and is currently licensed to explore for gas in Block 14T in Kajiado, which is in close proximity to the Kipeto fields.
It has been looking for an international oil explorer to form a partnership with and jointly explore the block, with expectations that the new partner would enable it to progress with exploration works.
Other than the development of the Kajiado block, Nock plans to take up a role in the Lokichar oil project being developed by Tullow Oil and its joint venture partners, Total and Africa Oil.
It plans to cross-list at the Nairobi Securities Exchange (NSE) and the London Stock Exchange (LSE) to raise funds to invest in the blocks, where a Final Investment Decision (FID) is expected to be made in 2020. The dual listing on the LSE and NSE targets to raise $1 billion (Sh100 billion).
The country could also take some comfort in the fact that Zarara Oil & Gas, which is registered in the Cayman Islands is drilling gas exploration wells in Lamu’s Pate Island, with plans to build a 50-megawatt power plant.
The discovery, if certified afresh, could raise expectations that Kenya will soon rival neighbouring Tanzania in generating cheaper electricity. The planned gas-fired power plant in Dongo Kundu, Mombasa, had been dropped in 2016 but was revived this year.
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