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Oil and gas resources are averse to State boundaries

By Charles Wanguhu | February 24th 2019


In 2014, the Kenya Civil Society Platform on Oil and Gas released a report on the development of Kenya’s oil and gas resources. In it, the platform faulted the draft petroleum law for not making provision for joint development zones when oil basins straddle Kenya’s borders.

The argument was that Kenya’s borders with South Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia and Uganda could possibly contain promising oil and gas basins. Historical areas of contention such as the Migingo island and the Ilemi triangle are a case in point. In the Ilemi triangle case, previous longitudinal old maps show it being parallel to equator of the triangle and may cause challenges in the development of any resources contained therein.

The promising oil basins on the side of South Sudan, Somalia and Uganda may offer compelling cases for joint development of the reservoir between Kenya and any of its neighbours. Even though the initial Petroleum Bill provided for unitisation, its coverage is limited to contract areas within Kenya and not across jurisdictions.

The current dispute with Somalia gives time for reflection on the lack of a framework on the issue for cross-boundary resources. Indeed, experiences already exist on the continent. The International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) ruled in favour of Ghana against the claim brought by the Ivory Coast with regards to its deep water oil finds.

The timing of the escalated dispute, especially in light of South Africa’s discovery of a possible billion barrels offshore can be deemed suspect. However, one could say the issues have always been latent and are only likely to escalate with time and discovered resources.


A further issue that arises on cross-border resources is improvements in drilling technology that allow for directional drilling or non-vertical wells. Therefore, wells can be drilled at myriad angles, tapping into reserves miles away and in excess of a mile below the surface. A country could, therefore, tap into its neighbour’s reservoir and exploit its resources while the focus is on physical boundaries or nautical mile limits.

Kenya’s response in expelling the Somalia ambassador and recalling its own can be deemed to view the auctioning of blocks as an extreme act of aggression. Only time will tell if, in fact, the region under contention contains resources worthy of the fallout that it threatens or falls into the Kenya government’s push for the Blue Economy. At this juncture without enough geological surveys undertaken in the area, very little is known on the resources available.

Overall, the African Union or an intergovernmental organisation bloc like East African Community could commence a process useful to tackle the issue, more so in light of the push for African solutions to its problems.

The Danish (I believe) proverb that “When neighbours quarrel, lookers-on (oil companies in this example) are more apt to add fuel than water” would be more than fitting in this sense, no doubt as the quarrel is about fuel.

- The writer is the Coordinator at Kenya Civil Society Platform on Oil and Gas. The views in the article are his own.

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