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Kenyans should not celebrate over inconclusive reports of oil deposits

COMMENTARY
By | March 31st 2012

By Ben Arum

President Kibaki announced with the solemnity expected of a Cardinal that we have oil. A smiling Energy Minister displayed small bottles containing the precious liquid and I said to myself: Habeamus Petroleum! The following day I bought all the daily newspapers to read the important detail. Is the discovery viable for commercial exploitation? I was disappointed. The closest Energy Minister Kiraitu Murungi came to revealing any knowledge of the expected volumes was doubly disappointing.

Like a boy showing off the superiority of his circumstance to his playmate, he gleefully informed the country that "the oil that was discovered in Uganda was much lower than Kenya’s.’’ No different from "my mango is better than yours!’’ Then he went on, "More exploratory wells and seismic data are required to establish if the Ngamia-I discovery will be of any commercial significance.’’ The country was given hope by none other than the President. Then the minister throws in solid uncertainty. What if the Ngamia-I discovery will not be of any commercial significance? Tullow Oil Vice-President for African Business Tom O`Hanlon, confirmed it may be too early to celebrate.

Large volumes are needed to justify commercial production. Mr Murungi disappointed further when he inferred quite unscientifically that if Sudan and Uganda have oil and Tanzania has natural gas, then it was just a matter of time before Kenya found her own reserves. Some semblance of scientific explanation was offered – the geological structure of the Ngamia-I Block is similar to the Albertian Block where Tullow discovered oil in Uganda.

These are unnecessary pseudo-scientific explanations of the supposed discovery. Science needs little external explanations. It justifies itself. Tullow Oil and the Energy Ministry could have done better. This discovery by induction makes our feelers rise. According to revealed projections, Tullow Oil has drilled about 1.1km and will continue drilling until they reach a depth of 2.7km. One would hope the remaining 1.6km is all oil; a beautiful hope but as fragile as all beautiful things. The newspapers reminded us that Moi made a similar announcement 20 years ago. In 1992, which was an election year, Moi claimed Shell Exploration Company had discovered oil in Kenya. Till now there is no oil, no Shell and no talk about that significant breakthrough.

It is an election year again and Kenya gets blessed with oil placed by God at a depth so shallow it is less than half the target depth. Faith surely overcomes science. For some of us who are suspicious of Government; who think Government is a labyrinth of secrets and lies especially on things that are universally disproportionately shared, we suspect mischief. The language of the Government is candid: We have oil. The language of Tullow Oil officers is somewhat cautionary. They know there is a minimum threshold volume for the reserves to make commercial sense to be exploited. They also hinted at difficult revenue sharing agreements. I warn Kenyans not to be too excited. I do not doubt Tullow’s expertise or their findings. I doubt why a Head of State can announce to his people inconclusive results about a subject as touchy as oil. Nigeria is sleepless because of oil. Angola and Sudan and many other countries have experience of its bad aspects.

Oil is not something you use to improve the moods of the people or extract their patriotism or consolidate their nationalism. It is not intelligent to say we have discovered oil only to say a few sentences later that the commercial viability of the discovery will take years to ascertain. Signs of a heavy net are not signs of fish. For oil or any other mineral, definite announcements should only be made once the commercial viability has been confirmed. We cannot doubt Tullow but again didn’t we trust Shell when Moi made a similar claim in 1989?

Writer is an Engineer.

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