Shale, Energy and North Africa’s Future

As countries across North Africa work towards rebuilding both customer confidence and hydrocarbon operations following the political and financial instability of 2011, some are looking past traditional options to test the limits of the region’s shale potential.

First initiated in Tunisia in the Spring of 2010, North Africa’s shale efforts have slowly spread across the region, adopted by both established oil and gas producers and those who see little potential for traditional measures. The push towards exploring the area’s deep-set shale reserves came as the success of such efforts in the United States and studies showing widespread potential across the globe began to spur investor excitement. As time allowed closer inspection of the geological variances of the Maghreb states and their true shale potential, a clearer picture of what shale deposits could mean for the region has emerged.

These efforts come just as similar efforts in more mature shale markets are running into often debilitating challenges. Building on environmental worries related to the practice of fracking, public and political movements have successfully stalled efforts in the United Kingdom, France and parts of Germany as the uncertainty about the effects of the practice have added to concerns about project costs. This environment led European Union Energy Chief Gunther Ottenger to suggest the possibility of a community–wide regulatory system on shale efforts, inviting a pledge to veto any such legislation from Poland’s government, who has led the way towards introducing shale projects to the European marketplace. Meanwhile, in the birthplace of the fracking process, US President Barack Obama accompanied his support for further shale projects with an appeal for energy companies to disclose the ingredients of fracturing fluids, which have been protected information until now. However, these worries and protest movements have done little to damper enthusiasm among North African actors, as they continue to move shale projects forward.

Building on the region’s first shale effort in March 2010, Tunisia are continuing to work with early partners France’s Perenco and Canada’s Cygam in their exploration efforts, though last year’s political transition slowed the effort’s momentum. While both firms have worked to assure their Tunisian partners of their intent to stay put, lingering questions of instability, including the recent kidnapping of a mayor near the vital Ghadames Basin do little to help calm project partners.

Hailed as the country with the most shale potential thanks to the accessibility and quantity of reserves in the Ghadames Basin it shares with Tunisia and the Illizi Basin, Algeria has moved to attract foreign partners for shale efforts. According to Reuters, estimates suggest up to 1,000 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, trapped in shale rock about 1000 meters beneath the ground.  Facing a steady decline in the production levels of more mature oil and gas options, Algeria’s actions suggest a long-term approach to energy alternatives that included a heavy dependence on non-traditional resources such as shale.

Algeria and their state-backed firm Sonatrach have worked to secure working partnerships to help move their shale efforts forward, beginning with the signing of a MOU with Italy’s Eni last year. The Spanish giant has also looked to expand their resource base after Libya’s production all but halted amid political violence last year. Eni’s MOU with Sonatrach is meant to both lend the company’s shale extraction expertise to Algeria and help the company ensure a more dependable natural gas source for export-heavy Italy. After investing billions in hopes of solidifying Libya as a consistent source of oil and gas for the domestically barren Italy, the country lost nearly a third of their energy imports as political protests turned into violent conflict earlier this year. While Eni stands as Algeria’s largest shale partner, Sonatrach have announced that they will continue seeking shale partnerships with other international firms.

Even in Morocco, where domestic energy resources have remained elusive to the leadership of King Mohammad VI, one company has bet that the company’s true potential lies far deeper. Following four years of testing and coming in the latter half of a 3 year Memorandum of Understanding with the government of Morocco, London-based San Leon announced this month that they were ready to begin production at a site in the southern part of the country. Hoping to replicate their efforts in Poland, San Leon entered the northwest African nation five years ago to begin initial testing in the Tarfaya Oil Shale Field Pilot Project. San Leon recently announced that they had achieved “connectivity” between two wells in their Tarfaya oil shale project, suggesting progress in the country, though the Irish firm’s pace has worried some as their share price shrunk 59 percent over the last year. Despite overlapping basins deemed positive, Libya is the only country in the region to receive little attention by shale actors, as alternative efforts have been overshadowed by the substantial promise of traditional energy projects.

The Obstacles that Remain

For all the interest in the region’s predicted shale potential, a number of obstacles towards profitable operations remain, which have undoubtedly increased with the political instability of the last year. In addition to countries now faced with re-building confidence among foreign investors following the ousting of long-standing governments in 2011, many face significant funding deficits needed to support the high infrastructure costs associated with shale efforts. Largely lacking the access to the equipment, technology and personnel needed to reach and exploit shale projects, North African states will need the support of international partners to move these projects forward. In addition to signing cooperation agreements with firms from across Europe, some states are looking to the US State Department’s Global Shale Gas Initiative for guidance and aid, though political divisions and uncertainty about regional stability have kept that support

Image: Arabian Oil and Gas

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