A Canadian oil firm thinks it has struck big. Some fear it could ravage a


Syringa trees rise out of the Kalahari sand in the wild expanse of Kavango East, as the humid heat warns of afternoon showers. It’s easy to imagine this place has looked the same for a hundred years.

Except, that is, for the road. Recently widened, graded and ramrod straight, new roads like this mean change is coming.

Carved out of the trees and surrounded by a chain-link fence, that change comes as a shock: a giant oil rig towers above these flat lands, dwarfing the trees.

In this northeastern corner of Namibia, on the borders of Angola and Botswana, a Canadian oil company called ReconAfrica has secured the rights to explore what it believes could be the next — and perhaps even the last — giant onshore oil find.

The oilfield that ReconAfrica wants to harness is immense. The firm has leased more than 13,000 square miles, or some 30,000 square kilometers, of land in Namibia and neighboring Botswana.

The find — potentially containing 12 billion barrels of oil — could be worth billions of dollars. And some experts believe the oil reserves here could be even bigger.

“We know we have discovered a new sedimentary basin. It’s up to 35,000 feet deep and it’s a large and very expansive basin,” says Craig Steinke, the co-founder of ReconAfrica.

Behind him, a team is operating a thousand horsepower rig capable of reaching depths of 12,000 feet. Even with Covid-19 lockdowns, they are working fast.

Steinke is confident; he says a detailed aeromagnetic survey shows the basin is large enough and deep enough to contain oil. “Every basin of this depth in the world produces commercial hydrocarbons. It just makes sense,” he said.

ReconAfrica is calling this part of eastern Namibia and western Botswana the Kavango basin.

It’s part of a wider geological formation already known to geologists. Some 110 million years ago, it formed at the bottom of a shallow inland sea. Basins are depressions in the earth’s crust formed mostly by tectonic forces over hundreds of millions of years.

Think of an empty swimming pool; over a very, very long period of time, the pool is filled with material — leaves, sand, organic matter. Hang around long enough and you won’t see the swimming pool — just the stuff inside it.

When the sediment is sitting at the right depth and is formed by the right mix of organic matter, such as the remains of dead animals or plants, it can, over tens of millions of years turn into oil, a resource that has helped drive the world economy for decades.

Today, that hunt for oil is triggering a fierce debate.

Supporters of drilling say the find could transform the fortunes of Namibia and Botswana, and that the countries have every right to exploit their own natural resources. After all, so the reasoning goes, the developed world has spent the past century exploiting its own fossil fuel reserves and getting rich in the process.

Opponents are using a familiar argument against oil exploration. They believe a major find could devastate regional ecosystems.

And they have a powerful tool in the fight against hydrocarbons: In the face of the climate crisis, and in a region uniquely vulnerable to rising temperatures, should oil be exploited at all?

Staggering warming

Unlike neighboring Angola, Namibia doesn’t have an oil industry of its own to speak of — so far. Yet it is already being hammered by the world’s dependency on fossil fuels.

“Southern Namibia already has twice the global rate of warming. In northern Namibia it is a staggering 3.6 degrees Celsius per century,” said Francois Engelbrecht, a professor at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa, and a lead author on the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report.

“The northern part of Namibia and Botswana and southern Zambia are likely the region in the Southern Hemisphere that is warming the fastest,” he said.

Multiple projections show that as the planet warms, these regions…

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