Eritrea: Peaceful, Safe and Oil Deposits
by Jane Whaley | 30 November 2016
Thirty year independence struggle and a border war with Ethiopia mean that the natural resources of Eritrea remain largely untapped, but there is ample evidence that this now peaceful and without a doubt the safest country in Africa is highly prospective for oil and gas.
Eritrea lies at the southern end of the Red Sea, which was formed in Oligo-Miocene times (36 – 20 million years ago) as the African land mass broke away from the Arabian shield. Pre-rift arching and break-up of the continental crust led to the formation of the Red Sea, with block faulting on the flanks and strong subsidence in the central part, both very important for the formation of hydrocarbon traps.
Like many of us, when Eritrea was first mentioned to Alec Robinson, he reached for the atlas. “It’s not the first place that springs to mind when thinking of African hydrocarbon exploration,” the CEO of Centric Energy admits. “But that’s the point. It’s one of the few relatively unexplored places left in the world – and it has great potential. The Eritrean Red Sea has all the classic features of pre- and post-rift sedimentation, including syn-rift evaporites, as well as a known oil-rich source, and sediment feeder channels leading to prospects in less than 50m of water. There are also oil seeps on the islands of the Dahlak archipelago, and along the coast.”
“In addition to all the positive geological indicators,” Alec adds, “it is now one of the safest and most peaceful places to work in Africa. The government has made great efforts to encourage oil companies to the country.
The geology of Eritrea is dominated by metamorphosed Precambrian rocks, which were deformed by the pan-African orogeny, and then further altered by the intrusion of Lower Palaeozoic granites. As a result, the country abounds in minerals such as gold, copper, and zinc, but most of the areas prospective for hydrocarbons are found offshore.
Alec and his colleagues at Centric believe that these sediments could hold large quantities of hydrocarbons. “Although exploration started back in 1921, only eleven wells have ever been drilled in Eritrean waters, with a further 12 shallow holes back in the 1940’s on offshore islands. Eight of the offshore wells had good oil or gas shows, and the widespread occurrence of seeps is further evidence of a working petroleum system.”
“In fact one well, C1, drilled in 1969 by Mobil, suffered a massive gas blow-out, and continued flowing for 55 days before finally stopping naturally. From the limited and varying quality data available, a number of prospects and leads have been identified in both the pre- and sub-salt formations of the Eritrean Red Sea,” Alec says.
“Obviously, after 30 years of war, the security situation was off-putting and left companies with concerns about operating in the country,” Alec replies. “But there were a number of other factors. Several of the wells, particularly those drilled in the 70’s, found gas, which at a time was not a sought-after commodity. That is no longer an issue.”
Eritrea is trying hard to overcome the violent historical perspective most people hold of the country. The infrastructure is being rebuilt and efforts have been made to develop the economy, including putting in place attractive oil and gas licensing terms.
Sixteen foreign minerals exploration companies are now working there, reflecting the confidence of foreign investors, and the country’s first gold mine, Bisha, is due to start producing later this year, bringing much-needed revenue to the country.
“It’s a great place to visit,” says Alec Robinson. “Asmara, the capital, is in the hills, so it has a very pleasant, temperate climate, and is very safe to walk around. The people are delightful, and don’t give you any hassle. Since it was once part of an Italian colony, the architecture in the town is often in an interesting sort of Italian-colonial art deco style. And they make great coffee and pizza!”