BY LAUREL NEME and JEFFREY BARBEE
Two members of the United States Congress have sent a plea to the secretary of state, the attorney general, and other top officials urging a “thorough and coordinated investigation” into concerns raised by a series of National Geographic articles about oil and gas exploration in southern Africa’s spectacular and delicate Okavango region.
The Canadian-based oil company Reconnaissance Energy Africa (ReconAfrica) has licenses to explore in a 13,200-square-mile area in Namibia and Botswana, including part of the vital watershed of the Okavango Delta, one of the largest inland deltas in the world. The delta’s ecosystem is a UNESCO-protected World Heritage site. Its watershed supports more than a million people and bountiful wildlife, from lions, giraffes, and slaty egrets to African wild dogs and the world’s largest remaining population of endangered savanna elephants.
In the letter dated June 16, 2021, and shared with National Geographic, Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, and Congressman Jeff Fortenberry, a Nebraska Republican, cite five articles by National Geographic during the past nine months as source material for their call for an investigation.
National Geographic’s reporting has detailed the risk to the wildlife and habitat and provided evidence of inadequate environmental impact studies and scant consultations with local communities. Most recently, National Geographic described a whistleblower complaint to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) alleging that the company has misled investors by producing overly positive investor presentations, press releases, interviews, and paid advertising while omitting critical information, such as ReconAfrica’s lack of proper permission for water and land use.
In September 2019, Oilprice.com, an energy news site and paid promotion site, called the search for oil in the Okavango region possibly the world’s “largest oil play of the decade,” a claim that experts National Geographic spoke to say isn’t based on independent analysis. The company has drilled one test well in northeastern Namibia, and a second is under way. If exploratory work finds commercially viable deposits of oil and gas, ReconAfrica said in a July 2020 investor presentation, then the ultimate goal is to drill “hundreds of wells” in the region.
ReconAfrica representatives did not comment on the lawmakers’ call for a U.S. government investigation. A ReconAfrica spokesperson described National Geographic’s reporting as “categorically untrue” and said in a written statement, “We sincerely believe that Namibia’s natural resource industry can be developed in an environmentally and socially responsible manner,” adding that ReconAfrica’s work in Namibia is “guided by—and under the constant review and approval of—representatives of a wide range of government ministries and regulatory agencies.”
If the U.S. government were to find evidence of wrongdoing, it could result in fines against the company, criminal charges against the individuals involved, or a halt of trading for its U.S. share sales.
“Suggestions of inadequate environmental impact studies and consultations with local communities” are major concerns, the Democratic senator and Republican congressman say in their letter.
Leahy and Fortenberry assert that the U.S. has an interest in protecting the Okavango Delta under the Defending Economic Livelihoods and Threatened Animals (DELTA) Act, which became law in 2018, to safeguard this ecologically, culturally, and economically important part of the world.
“International corporations operating in this region of Africa should work collaboratively with local communities and be held to global environmental standards,” says Fortenberry, co-chair of the International Conservation Caucus, author of the DELTA Act, and member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations. “Africa is not a frontier to be exploited. This area, in particular, is one of the most unique and pristine ecosystems in the world. It is irreplaceable and needs guardrails for sustainable activity.”
ReconAfrica’s license area abuts the main river that feeds the Okavango Delta for some 170 miles. Wringing oil from rocks deep underground requires massive quantities of water, which is scarce in the parched region, and few other water sources are available for people and wildlife during the long dry season. Furthermore, any contamination of the river could be carried downstream into the delta.
Calle Schlettwein, Namibia’s minister of agriculture, water, and land reform, the agency responsible for water-related permits, told National Geographic in a written statement in March that ReconAfrica does not yet have permits approved to extract water to use in its drilling operations or to dispose of the wastewater. This suggests that the company is operating in breach of Namibian government regulations. In its 2019 environmental assessment, ReconAfrica said it would have all permits in place before work began. In a tweet on May 26, Schlettwein confirmed that so far “no permit has been issued.”
The ministry did not respond by press time with an update on the permit applications’ status.
ReconAfrica says it’s not disposing of wastewater on site and that it has “worked closely” with Namibia’s government to “secure approvals and permits for the legal operation” of its wells.
Community members in the exploration area allege that ReconAfrica has cleared land for drilling without properly consulting or compensating local people, according to a lawsuit filed in Namibia’s High Court in April by the Legal Assistance Centre on behalf of Andreas Sinonge, a farmer. Under Namibian law, ReconAfrica needs rights to use the land before it can clear it for drilling sites and access roads. The lawsuit alleges that ReconAfrica did not get this permission and must restore Sinonge’s farmland.
ReconAfrica says its application is under review by the regional government and that it has “documented permission and consent for land use” from the local traditional authority, though it did not provide that documentation to National Geographic.
Call for a multiagency investigation
The bipartisan letter was addressed to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Attorney General Merrick Garland, Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Gary Gensler, and Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator Samantha Power.
A spokesperson for the State Department, which leads U.S. foreign policy, acknowledged receipt of the letter but declined to comment on congressional correspondence.
The Department of Justice is responsible for investigating possible criminal activity, and the SEC examines possible securities fraud.
USAID, which administers foreign aid and development assistance, supports reducing southern Africa’s reliance on fossil fuels. In April, the agency signed a memorandum of intent for the Mega Solar Project, a partnership with Namibia, Botswana, and others to generate up to five gigawatts of electricity with solar power.
Leahy and Fortenberry write that the issues raised by National Geographic about the drilling project are “potentially counter to stated United States foreign policy goals” and warn that “when extractive industries fail to follow international standards, such development risks serious and potentially irreparable harm to unique, vulnerable, and irreplaceable areas such as the Okavango Delta and its water resources.”
The letter notes that countries have the right to develop their natural resources and have legal processes in place. Leahy and Fortenberry say, however, that National Geographic’s reporting “raises serious concerns about whether those laws were actually followed.”
“It is critical,” they write, “that a project, throughout its life, strictly adheres to international best practices for transparency, community participation, and environmentally sustainable practices.”
“We believe the concerns raised by National Geographic warrant careful attention by the United States government,” Leahy and Fortenberry conclude.
Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at natgeo.com/impact. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to NGP.WildlifeWatch@natgeo.com.