BY JEFFREY BARBEE AND LAUREL NEME
WALVIS BAY, NAMIBIAThe search for oil and gas in the watershed of the world-famous, wildlife-rich Okavango Delta moved one step closer to reality when a multimillion-dollar drilling rig from Houston, Texas, broke ground on the first test well in Namibia on January 11.
The rig, retrofitted for drilling in the desert, had arrived in December on the 600-foot-long transport ship Yellowstone, also laden with at least 23 massive trucks for pulling loads, bundles of drill pipe, and seismic testing systems on trucks with off-road tractor tires.
Because of the pandemic, Walvis Bay was eerily quiet at the time. Instead of the usual bustling of beach-going visitors, the only activity was the din around the Yellowstone as workers in reflective overalls helped offload equipment being lowered to the ground by dockside cranes.
Within the week, ReconAfrica’s rig had been trucked 680 miles north to a drilling site in the bed of the seasonal Omatako River, about 160 miles upstream of the Okavango Delta, one of the world’s largest protected wetlands. Several weeks later, workers began drilling the first test well.
ReconAfrica, formally Reconnaissance Energy Africa Ltd., is an oil and gas exploration company listed on Canadian and German stock exchanges whose drilling program is run by Nick Steinsberger, an American fracking expert. The company has licensed more than 13,200 square miles of land in Namibia and Botswana to explore for oil and gas.
As National Geographic previously reported, the company’s 3,200-square-mile license area in Namibia and Botswana encompasses the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area and, originally, the Tsodilo Hills, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Botswana. Following the National Geographic story in October, Tsodilo Hills was excluded from the license. The license area supports various endangered species, such as African wild dogs, white-backed vultures, and Temminck’s ground pangolins. Africa’s largest remaining herd of savanna elephants moves through it. In Namibia, the license area is home to more than 200,000 people and six locally managed wildlife reserves, or conservancies.
On December 4, Namibian activists staged a protest in Windhoek, the country’s capital, against the arrival of the rig. Holding a “no to fracking” banner Reinhold Mangundu, an environmental activist and master’s student in sustainable development at South Africa’s Stellenbosch University, who was visibly upset, said, “I am angry at ReconAfrica for coming all this way to risk our prestigious ecosystem!”
In October 2020, ReconAfrica spokesperson Claire Preece told National Geographic that the company “will ensure that there is no environmental impact from these wells.” She said that fracking wasn’t applicable to the company’s exploration license and that ReconAfrica was focused on “hydrocarbons in conventional reservoirs” that don’t need to be fracked. The Namibian government has not granted permission to frack, but a ReconAfrica research report and podcast interview given by CEO Scot Evans discuss “unconventional opportunities,” and a company investor presentation refers to the possibility of using “modern frac simulations” (fracking), if exploratory drilling proves promising.
ReconAfrica did not respond to questions or requests for comment for this report, but instead sent a letter from a Namibian attorney threatening legal action against National Geographic if its previous story was not amended or retracted.
Test drilling begins
Drilling in the Omatako River, the site of the first test well, is risky for local communities, says Surina Esterhuyse, a geohydrologist from South Africa’s University of the Free State, in Bloemfontein. Surface water is hard to find in this arid region, so people rely on groundwater, which can easily be contaminated when the water table is shallow, as it is here.
Preece told National Geographic in October 2020 that the company plans to dig new water wells for communities near drill sites and that potentially toxic drill cuttings from the oil test wells “will be managed in lined pits, cleaned, and disposed of offsite as per company and regulatory requirements.”
Another concern Esterhuyse notes is that because the Omatako feeds into the Okavango Delta, a nearly 7,000-square-mile oasis of biodiversity that has no outlet, toxic chemicals “from oil and gas extraction operations may become permanent long-term pollutants.”
In tweets on November 27, 2020, Namibia’s Minister of Agriculture, Water and Land Reform, Calle Schlettwein, said his ministry wasn’t consulted about the decision to grant a drilling license. “We however stand ready to discuss relevant water and agricultural issues,” he wrote.
Preece said that the test drill area “is not situated in a sensitive area at all and all the exploration activities are highly localised.” She further noted that “ReconAfrica follows Namibian regulations and policies as well as international best practices.”
In addition to drilling test wells, ReconAfrica said in an October 2020 news release that it plans to undertake a seismic survey in early 2021 to confirm the presence and size of oil and gas deposits. Seismic surveys send sound waves into the Earth that, like x-rays in a human body, provide a rough picture thousands of feet below the surface. To create the waves, specialized trucks thump the ground with powerful, low-frequency vibrations.
Before ReconAfrica can begin the seismic survey, it must carry out an environmental impact assessment, according to Namibian law, as it had to do to get permission to drill test wells.
Namibian environmental assessment practitioner Sindila Mwiya—who completed the analysis, in June 2019, for the test well phase of the project—is undertaking the new assessment for the seismic survey. On January 7, he published a notice in the Namibian press inviting public consultations in writing or at scheduled in-person meetings.
Recon Africa’s map of the planned seismic survey shows that part of it will run along the entire western border of the George Mukoya Conservancy. Jacob Hamutenya is the conservancy’s chairman. He says he had heard nothing about the seismic testing plan and fears for his community and the elephants that attract tourists to his area.
“It is not good for us to not hear anything about this program of testing; that is totally unfair,” Hamutenya says. He’s concerned that ReconAfrica’s seismic survey may harm “our environment, our wildlife and our trees, even our domestic animals.”
Mwiya’s previous environmental impact assessment, for ReconAfrica’s test drilling, noted that it would be done in an elephant migration corridor between two national parks, which is also where the company plans to carry out its seismic survey. (Coincidentally, on December 2, 2020, Namibia announced that it would hold an auction to sell 90 elephants that live in the vicinity of ReconAfrica’s test wells.)
Biologists are concerned about how the seismic survey’s sound waves will affect elephants, which communicate with low-frequency seismic waves “heard” through their sensitive feet. These vibrations provide information about other herds, water sources, and potential danger.
“Recent studies have demonstrated that elephants were sensitive to seismic signals produced by thunderstorms a hundred miles away,” says elephant biologist Audrey Delsink, the wildlife director of Humane Society International, in Africa. “So we know that elephants are extremely sensitive to, and primed for, seismic vibrations.”
ReconAfrica did not respond to a request from National Geographic as to whether the environmental impact assessment would include information on the effects on elephants of seismic testing in the area.
ReconAfrica has promoted the oil and gas project as being an important source of jobs for locals and of community development. But after examining ReconAfrica’s agreement with the Namibian government for its oil exploration license, Nikki Reisch, director of the Center for International Environmental Law’s Climate and Energy Program, said in an email that the project “seems engineered more to fast-track the production of oil than to promote the development of the communities affected most.”
On October 7, 2020, the international “hacktivist” group Anonymous shut down websites of numerous Namibian government ministries, including the president’s office, in protest against the test drilling. A Twitter user calling himself Paladin said it was in opposition to “greed and allowing the destruction of environment and wildlife.” The sites remained offline for at least two days. A month later, on November 6, Paladin again reported that government websites had been taken down.
Namibians expressed anger during a livestreamed event in November hosted by the American Petroleum Institute for ReconAfrica to promote the project to potential investors. “We on the ground are against this project,” a Namibian commenter named Veruschka Pate wrote in the live chat. “We feel betrayed by our government and this company.”
On December 18, Q7 Beckett, an indigenous Khoe and San youth leader in nearby South Africa, posted a video on Facebook announcing a protest walk to the Namibian consulate in Cape Town starting on February 1 to “defend his people’s homelands” by protesting the oil exploration. “We have nowhere to take our people. Our people cannot live there if you are drilling,” he said in the video.
Part of the anger many Namibians hold stems from the sense, they say, that they were left out of the initial environmental assessment process, which paved the way for ReconAfrica to get a permit to drill test wells.
When reached for comment, Pate (whose real name is Veruschka Dumeni) said, “We only heard about this project in September  in the press.” Dumeni said it was frustrating because, she claims, “only when the commencement of the project was near, when the company had raised financing, built investor interest, and already obtained the rights, only then did the nation and affected communities come to know of it.”
Mwiya’s company, Risk-Based Solutions, held public meetings in March and May 2019, and public notices in English ran in local media in May 2019 inviting written feedback on the plans to drill test wells by the end of the month. Although English is the country’s official language, most Namibians don’t speak or understand it. An email address and phone number were provided, but some 85 percent of the people living in the license area don’t use the internet regularly or have no online access to enable them to submit written feedback, as the notice requested.
Opponents of the project worry about the potential for fracking. Extinction Rebellion, a decentralized global movement pressing governments to address climate change, Fridays For Future, and celebrity anti-frackers such as U.S. film director Josh Fox—who wrote and directed the Oscar-nominated documentary Gasland, about the effects of fracking in the U.S.—all are supporting an ongoing campaign on Twitter and Facebook under the banner of the group Frack Free Namibia and Botswana.
UNESCO too is “following with attention and concern” ReconAfrica’s oil and gas exploration ambitions in the region, it said in a strongly worded statement on December 21. The organization had requested more information and hosted an online meeting with representatives from Namibia and Botswana; one outcome was that the Botswana government said it would change the licensed area to “exclude the Tsodilo Hills World Heritage site, which was previously erroneously included.”
We’ve “always taken a strong position that oil and gas exploration or exploitation activities are incompatible with World Heritage status,” Mechtild Rössler, director of UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre, said in the statement, which also emphasized that local communities and Indigenous peoples need to be part of management and decision making.
Meanwhile, public opposition keeps growing. An online petition by the group Rainforest Rescue to stop the test drilling now has more than 112,000 signatures.
Jeffrey Barbee is a science writer, photojournalist, and documentary filmmaker, whose documentary The High Cost of Cheap Gas, about fracking for oil and gas, has been translated into six languages and won numerous awards. He’s the founder of Alliance Earth , an independent environmental and science reporting initiative that collaborates with news organizations around the world.
Laurel Neme , Ph.D., is a contributor to National Geographic. She served in the U.S. Department of Treasury and consulted for the U.S. Agency for International Development, focusing on environmental and social impacts of development projects. She’s the author of several books, including Animal Investigators: How the World’s First Wildlife Forensics Lab Is Solving Crimes and Saving Endangered Species and The Elephant’s New Shoe .