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The sun sets over the Okavango Delta, Botswana, on April 25, 2018.

Mike Hutchings/Reuters

A potential oil boom in the remote Kalahari region of Namibia, led by a Canadian oil company that plans to begin drilling by December, has provoked growing concern among Southern African environmentalists.

Reconnaissance Energy Africa Ltd. (ReconAfrica) says it has raised $23-million in financing for the project after securing petroleum licences for 8.75 million acres of land in Namibia and neighbouring Botswana.

The Vancouver-based company says the region could eventually generate 120 billion barrels of oil equivalent, making it one of the world’s biggest oil discoveries in recent decades.

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But environmentalists are concerned that the oil development will affect aquifers and water balances in a biologically sensitive region near the Okavango Delta, one of the most famous wildlife conservancies in Africa. They also fear that the development could damage traditional sites of the San, the Indigenous people in Namibia and Botswana.

ReconAfrica says its preparations are well under way. After purchasing a drilling rig in Texas, it is sending the rig to Namibia to launch a three-well test drilling program in December. It describes the region, known as the Kavango Basin, as “one of the world’s last remaining undeveloped deep sedimentary basins.”

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SOURCE: reconafrica

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In response to questions from The Globe and Mail, the company said it is complying with all of Namibia’s laws and regulations, including the completion of an environmental impact assessment and the obtaining of environmental permits for the project. “ReconAfrica fully accepts and appreciates the importance of environmental law and policy and the areas covered within,” it said.

The company says its drilling locations are more than 50 kilometres south of the Okavango River, more than 200 kilometres west of the Okavango Delta, and more than 40 km from Khaudum National Park, an unfenced reserve that is home to elephants, lions, leopards, giraffes and antelopes.

The company also says it recognizes San rock art sites as “important artifacts” that should not be disturbed.

Environmentalists note, however, that the drilling sites could be “moved around” within the licensed area, according to the official Environmental Impact Assessment report for the project.

“Namibia does not have the capacity to enforce compliance,” said Annette Huebschle, a senior researcher in the University of Cape Town’s public law department who has studied the oil project.

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“It’s very worrisome that the company has free rein to move the drill locations,” she told The Globe.

Avena Jacklin, climate and energy justice campaign manager at groundWork, a Southern Africa environmental group, said the ReconAfrica drilling program will require huge amounts of water, potentially threatening the groundwater reserves that are crucial for communities in the area.

In addition, she said, drilling through shale could release heavy metals and radioactive materials into the underground water supplies, and methane could migrate into drinking water.

Another concern is whether the project could involve fracking, a controversial technique that has rarely been attempted in sub-Saharan Africa. Environmentalists believe that fracking might be unofficially planned at the Namibian site, since ReconAfrica has spoken of “conventional and unconventional” resources in its licensed area.

The company recently appointed Nick Steinsberger as its senior vice-president of drilling and completions, noting that he was the pioneer of “slickwater fracking” – the technique that revolutionized the modern fracking industry – at the Barnett Shale in Texas.

But the company denies that it is considering fracking as an option at its test wells in Namibia. “There has never been any hydraulic fracture or other stimulation planned for these wells,” it told The Globe in response to questions.

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At an African oil conference last week, ReconAfrica chief executive Scot Evans told investors that Namibia is under-explored and new data are revealing its vast potential. Oil development in the Kavango Basin has a “very bright future” and could become a major source of jobs and electricity supplies for the people of northeastern Namibia, Mr. Evans told the conference.

Maggy Shino, Petroleum Commissioner in the Namibian Ministry of Mines and Energy, told the conference that the ReconAfrica project could be a “game changer” for the small African country, which has a population of fewer than three million.

The project could boost the government’s revenue and reduce dependence on imported electricity, she said. “Because our population is small, any discovery could make a significant

difference in the lives of Namibians.”

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Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article misstated the location of the company's drilling sites.
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