Kenya oil: Inside Tullow oil Ngamia 1 rig in Turkana
It was an anxious moment for all of us as we waited to board a flight to Turkana for a tour of Ngamia 1 oil exploration site. It was a maiden tour by the media to the Tullow oil rig (a rig is an apparatus for on-land oil drilling) at block 10BB. The oil discovery had made headlines on March 26. Ngamia and Turkana oil was then trending on social media. But in a few days the usual negative publicity,Kenyan style, set in.
The war drums were sounded by Turkana MPs who claimed they had not been consulted. And then reports emerged of alleged underhand deals in land acquisition in Lokichar basin.The news that was supposed to lead to endless party for Kenyans turned to a war of words. As we complained and ranted for not being consulted, Tullow oil continues sinking in billions of shillings in exploration. To date they have sunk about Sh2.5 billion at Ngamia 1 oil rig alone.
We gathered at Wilson airport at 6.15am but it was not until 7.48am that the three chartered planes left Wilson Airport. We zoomed through misty Nairobi and to the breathtaking valleys of the great Rift Valley. The small talks among us diminished as the clock ticked.
The three photographers onboard seemed to be the only ones making use of the trip by clicking away the beautiful lakes and ridges that makes the Rift Valley. As the minutes turned to hours so did the vegetation turn from green to brown. We overflew the Aberdares forest with fresh dark patches as a result of recent fires, Baringo with her trademark of the lake with dirty brown water as a result of rains, through the bare hills of Pokot before the pilot announced that we are about to overfly the oil rig.
From an altitude of 3,500m the rig looked like a toy town surrounded by shrubs with very little greenery. Nothing else could be seen as far as our eyes could see. There were no usual manyattas or rivers surrounding the rig. It looked like a kings castle towering over a desert. In a few minutes Lokichar town came into view, a small town with half of the houses being tiny manyattas. The town came to be after a severe drought hit the area and it became a refugee centre. Tto date no much development has taken place.
The temperature at Lokichar was 40 degrees never mind that it was just 9am. One could easily fry an egg in the sweltering heat! The town at a closer look is a collection of tin-roofed shanties with mud walls and occasional manyattas made of twigs and used polythene papers.
After landing there was no time to savour this refugee town save for a quick break to relieve ourselves. No toilets were in sight and some decided to hide in the short shrubs, some made jokes of the situation by saying they were adding to the thickness of the oil. The town has very few cars (I only saw two) and a few boda boda (motorcycles).
We were ushered into a waiting bus to start the 40 minutes journey to the oil rig. From the ground the bareness of the land was more dire with dry seasonal river beds dotting the otherwise bare land. Lokichar has no single kilometre of tarmac and the dust raised by the other cars in the convoy made our ride more difficult. It was so dusty that I had to cover my camera for fear of sucking in the sand from the dusty ride.
Throughout the journey we met very few human activity prompting us to wonder whether indeed there are people living in this dry land. By the time we reached our destination we had seen seven donkeys, eight camels and about six people in a span of 70km. But in all this remoteness therein lies Kenya’s hope for wealth. After about 50 minutes on the road we arrived at Ngamia 1.
What looked like a toy town from the skies was far bigger than even Lokichar town. We were later told that the rig hosts about 300 people in a day. Security was tight with sentry posted all round the rig. We were cleared at the gate and issued with special passes to access the area.
After a briefing by both Tullow and Weatherford who are doing the actual drilling, it was time to put on the overalls, boots and googles for safety, all new provided by the company. The temperature was still at 45 degrees and and the boots and overalls did not make matters easier for us. From the briefing tents where cold juice helped to cool us off we could see the rig site with towering cranes and huge pipes being lifted, we were all anxious to capture the photos even before the tour commenced lest Tullow changes mind and we are turned back.
Most of us thought we would find drum full of oil all over the place as the team continued to drill but no, we didn’t see even one drop of it. It’s then that we were informed by David Howes, Tullow senior drilling officer, that “oil seeps like a sponge and not a well of water.”
The first hour was spent in class literally going through safety measures in the rig and then we were told how oil is drilled. Using a graph, David, one of the Tullow engineers, explained how the first 100m is drilled using 20-inch casings (pipes), after which a 13-inch casing is used at a depth of 712m. He explained that at about 1,515m where the well was on that day, three products were present: Water, gas and oil.
And then at around 11am, the much awaited tour of the drilling site began. My team was to be shown around by Howes. And there was a barrage of questions directed to the team even before we saw the well. “How soon will we get oil?” “Do you know how many barrels we may get,” asked another journalist. “What about environmental concern, have they been addressed?” Yet another asked whether Tullow was worried by increasing pressure from locals who were against the drilling. But Tullow Kenya regional manager Martin Mbogo kept on reassuring us that we will have time for questions after the briefing.
There were safety signs all over the rig. There were nearly 10 different companies doing different work within the rig but the overall drilling work was undertaken by Weatherford International using rig 804 that was initially used in the Niger Delta before coming to Kenya. After Ngamia, the rig will move to Paipai 1 Marsabit where Tullow will be exploring more oil fields.
The drilling itself was a team effort. When we were there, Tullow had drilled 1,515metres at block 10BB at Ngamia rig site. Mbogo said they expect to reach their primary drilling of 2,700 metres in 35 days after which data analysis will be carried out to determine whether it will be viable for commercialisation.
Martin Mwaisakenyi, commissioner for petroleum energy at the Ministry of Energy, said it was still early to determine whether Ngamia 1 is viable for commercial production. “Now we are speculating, we cannot say for sure if the oil will be enough for production but this is the most promising well since we started oil exploration in 1960,” he said.
The Ngamia well was initially drilled to a depth of 1,041metres and movable oil with an API greater than 30 degrees was found. The American Petroleum Institute gravity is a measure of how heavy or light a petroleum liquid is compared to water. If the API is greater than 10 degrees it is lighter and floats on water, if less than 10, it is heavier and sinks.
The oil discovered in the area has similar properties to the light waxy crude discovered in Uganda. Forty wells have been sunk in Uganda to date and 1.1 billion barrels have been discovered.
There are five stages in oil production and Ngamia well is at the second stage, called exploration. After exploration which entails detailed survey to identify a suitable project, it moves to appraisal stage. If a prospect is discovered, appraisal wells are used to check flow rate of the hydrocarbon (oil). This is the stage that Ngamia well is headed to.
The third stage is the development stage where Tullow Oil will asses the commercial viability of the find which is followed by drilling of wells in preparation of oil production. Uganda is at this stage. The final stage is the production by extracting and selling the oil. Mbogo said the project may take up to three years if oil is found in the Ngamia well. The company has already started prospecting for oil at Block 10A (Paipai-1) in Marsabit. Other blocks are in Baringo, Turkana, Kisumu and Malindi.