Ambassador Bheki Gila. Photo: Supplied
Ambassador Bheki Gila. Photo: Supplied

The golden age of hydrocarbons has finally reached SA

By Bheki Gila Time of article published Feb 26, 2019

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JOHANNESBURG - There is is no gentle way of announcing it, or more telling, a more sophisticated way of avoiding saying it, that South Africa has officially entered its golden age of hydrocarbon extraction.

In spite of the voices of sceptics, their disbelief not so much the fact that we have entered the age, but that it is golden, it would be naiveté of a disturbing kind that the country keeps walking into an age unbeknown to the best of its talent.

And that as it enters, it does so armed with no more than an infantile curiosity. The optimists for their part, who have become the wise men and women of our day, argue that it is not only an age, but a golden one, bolstered as they are by scientific evidence well nigh impossible to controvert.

Perhaps the glitter of the age may not be for the people themselves, but it certainly is for those wise enough to take advantage of a broken system, an indecisive political leadership and a porous policy framework designed to benefit the unscrupulous.

The Brulpadda find is a significant find, especially for a country not renowned for proven reserves of hydrocarbon deposits.

Nestled 275km south of Mossel Bay, Brulpadda commands a 19000 square kilometre heft. So important is the 57 metres of gas find struck at 3 633m of subsea depth that not even reporters are sure how to accurately describe it.

Is it gas or condensate or even crude oil occurring with casing head gas? This inability of description stems from the fear of over-exaggerating the find or misdescribing it. This could just as well be a stroke of marketing genius intended to keep the public and politicians curious, which imprecision could provide leverage to the discoverers when the time to negotiate with the South African Revenue Service comes to call. Yet Brulpadda is important for more other unpronounced reasons. It’s optics. The “bullfrog”, an approximated translation of brulpadda, has powerful neighbours: Exxon Mobil and ENI of Italy.

It would be difficult not to expect a spirited work plan to confirm the respective deposits of these giants, considering their proximity to a bullfrog groaning under the weight of one billion barrels of condensate. This would attract the attention of global investment capital, rig deployment and the attraction of specialised human capital.

The opening of an oil and gas province offshore would invite South Africa into the secretive debate of oil and gas politics hitherto inaccessible to it.

The country’s missed opportunities are often deliberately authored for our own enjoyment and in satiation of our obsessive tolerance to self-inflicted pain. There could be other reasons, but they remain obscure.

The ruling party and the political weight it portends, can easily promote and execute informed and well researched policy choices.

Whether or not they will, is an uncomfortable moot point and is dependent on a number of factors in constant flux.

The point of explaining commences where the minerals and energy were combined as the same government department mandated to champion a number of empowering legislative initiatives.

They proceeded from the assumption that power and discretion will infer from an undisputed source of statutory singularity.

When they were split, there were no legislative adjustments provided to accommodate the severing of these Siamese twins.

The surgical inelegance of this political operation has resulted in a severe haemorrhaging of discretionary capabilities of both creations.

The unintended consequence is that the Minister of Mineral Resources is responsible for regulating crude oil extraction offshore.

The second missed opportunity resulted when the governing party withdrew the bill that sought to accommodate the people’s ownership of oil found on the shores of the republic to at least 30percent free carry representation through the National Oil Company.

When such noble measure was mooted, all kinds of paid lobbyists masquerading as economic analysts conjured up doomsday economic reductionism, positing that if such an approach could be taken, potential investors stood to lose money and would therefore be scared away, never to return.

The governing party was intimidated, notwithstanding that nowhere else in the developing world is it conceivable that foreign companies could extract oil without state free carry participation.

When a ruling party is intimidated from its governing responsibilities, its existentialist philosophy and moral content is severely put to question.

Agrizzi and the Grand Old Wizard, were it not for the averments of Agrizzi the maverick, we would not have known that the shale rock penetration programme was never in jeopardy.

So much procrastination did not result from the inordinate delays in the promulgation of environmental regulations that would ensure ultimate safety in dedicated extraction.

Nor was it ever stalled accounting to the pressure of lobbyists.

For too long we have laboured under the assumption that the government knows best and ergo, those who were so inclined, had reverence for its obscure workings.

And so in its wisdom, the government, affectionately known as the Grand Old Wizard, was busy concocting the most bewildering alchemy in preparation of the last act of magic.

Agrizzi demurred.

He defied Walter Bagehot’s cautionary dictum and shone day on to magic.

At least we now know that all the screeching noises in shale gas extraction, was the grand ol’ alchemist busy cutting deals with Agrizzi, forming companies they could use to carve up a substantial part of the trillions of cubic feet of our fugacious heritage.

The Golden Age of Hydrocarbons within the last six months, right in the middle of a petrol price crisis, we have been treated to South Africa’s hydrocarbon endowments, whipping up a frenzy of optimism of so many South African patriots in the process.

And so the cat is out of the bag and the numbers are staggering. There is an estimated 60 tcf to 300 tcf of shale gas reserves, 10 billion barrels of crude oil reserves between Richards Bay and Port Shepstone and now Brulpadda.

We also know that there is $5billion (R70bn) worth of shale oil around the provinces of Gauteng, Mpumalanga and KZN. The country’s onshore potential is not disputed either. The next logical thing to do is to interrogate the state of readiness of the country.

Despite over a century’s worth of continental experiences, we still don’t know what to do differently.

And perhaps avoiding to respond to the herald of the golden era of hydrocarbons is the uncertainty of how to deal with the responsibilities that attach to it.

But there is consensus that whenever we discover the right political biorhythm, we stand a chance to own these resources wholly and so begin to harness them for all South Africans and posterity.

Ambassador Bheki Gila is a Barrister-at-Law.


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