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Survey Shows Lake Tanganyika’s Oil ‘Potential’ in Tanzania

  • Nick Long

KINSHASA — An Australian company exploring for oil on the Tanzanian side of Lake Tanganyika says it may target potential areas for drilling in about six months’ time. The company, Beach Energy, says the lake has the potential for large discoveries and there are clear signs of a working petroleum system on the Congolese side.

Beach Energy has an exploration license for the southern half of Tanzania’s share of Lake Tanganyika. In June the company started a seismic survey, which is now nearly complete. Beach Energy’s spokesman Chris Jamieson says they are very excited by their findings.

"The quality of the data we are getting is excellent," he said. "What we are seeing is some interesting structures that might contain oil and gas. Our geophysicists are looking at it and going ‘Wow, that looks fantastic and it’s everything we were hoping for.'"

Beach Energy says its exploration block has the potential to contain 200 million barrels of oil. But Jamieson cautions that finding and pumping that oil, at depths of up to one and a half kilometers, will take much longer than in Lake Albert to the north where production is due to start in 2014.

The next stage, he says, is identifying the areas of most interest from the data. "That process takes about six months. So it won’t be until the end of the first quarter of next year that we can say we’ve got potential targets," said the spokesman.

The area of greatest interest for oil exploration in Lake Tanganyika is probably on the Congolese side.

"There is an oil slick, a natural oil seep, that sits on the lake on the DRC side. You can actually see it on Google Earth. I think it’s the largest natural oil seep in the world. What that indicates is there’s a working petroleum system underneath the Lake," said Jamieson.

Unlike Tanzania and Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo has not issued any exploration licenses for Lake Tanganyika. In 2008 the DRC government signed a joint exploration deal with Tanzania but according to the International Crisis Group, a policy think tank, this agreement was never implemented.

Last year the Tanzanian Petroleum Development Corporation asked permission for Beach Energy to enter the Congolese side of the lake to facilitate its exploration on the Tanzanian side. According to a diplomatic source this request has not yet been granted, but the DRC government has asked for the request to be resubmitted.

Beach Energy said getting that permission from the DRC had been an issue for the company, but it was possible to carry out its survey without entering Congolese waters.

International Crisis Group says the DRC needs to reach clearer demarcation of its borders on Lake Tanganyika and on other lakes and coastal areas before it can collaborate with its neighbors on oil exploration. But, says Crisis Group analyst Thierry Vircoulon, the DRC has not made this a priority.

"The DRC has a contentious history with its neighbors and is quite reluctant to get involved in border demarcation work. It’s also related to the fact that the DRC is late in the oil business in comparison with Uganda but also with Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania," said Vircoulon.

The DRC has oil-related border disputes with Uganda and with Angola. According to Vircoulon, about half the oil produced by Angola comes from oil blocks which the DRC officially claims are within its territorial waters. Angola has offered Congo a stake in some of this area but two years ago the DRC postponed submitting its experts' report on the issue until 2014.

In a recent interview, the DRC’s energy minister Crispin Atama Tabe acknowledged that his country is lagging behind in the oil business. He told journalists this was because the country had been selling concessions to companies that resold them instead of exploring.

Atama Tabe said the new government wants to deal directly with major oil firms that are serious about exploration, and in future the DRC’s oil blocks will be auctioned in a transparent way.

Vircoulon says these are encouraging statements.

"I’m very happy that the minister now wants good governance in the awarding of oil rights. I’m very struck that he acknowledges what we demonstrated in our report about the awarding of oil rights to ghost companies and the financial mechanism of corruption," said Vircoulon.

In a speech earlier this month, Atama Tabe called on the DRC parliament to approve a draft hydrocarbons law which has been pending for two years.

In the same speech he said the government aims to start realizing the potential of Lake Tanganyika in the medium term.

Chris Jamieson of Beach Energy commented that it may be in Congo’s interest to wait before launching exploration of Lake Tanganyika as the value of the exploration rights will increase if oil is found on the Tanzanian side.

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