National Geographic: FINAL ReconAfrica ripped through the Okavango watershed to find oil. Instead, they found trouble

Canadian driller ReconAfrica, facing lawsuits and investigations, has left angry
communities and fractured landscapes in the wildlife-rich Okavango Delta


For the Canadian company hoping for an oil bonanza in the watershed of the wildlife-rich and visually spectacular Okavango Delta, 2022 was another grim year, and 2023 may not be any better. A hearing in Namibia set for April 3 could decide whether ReconAfrica's drilling permit, extended last year until 2025, will be revoked.

In 2022, Reconnaissance Energy Africa (ReconAfrica) drilled another “duster”—an industry term for an unproductive well. So far, all three of its test wells have failed to indicate the presence of commercially extractable oil. The company’s stock price has plummeted, lawsuits are ongoing on two continents, and a cash shortage may force it to cease operations.

ReconAfrica has licenses to explore across 13,200 square miles in Namibia and Botswana overlapping the sprawling Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, established by five countries to safeguard the headwaters and watersheds of the region’s great rivers, including the Okavango.

So far, the company has concentrated its search in northeastern Namibia, upstream of the Okavango Delta, a UN-recognized World Heritage site of channels and lagoons. The delta’s watershed—which includes the Okavango River and an underground network of shallow, interlinked aquifers—is vital for the livelihoods and survival of more than a million people in this arid part of southern Africa. The delta provides crucial habitat for the world's largest remaining populations of endangered African elephants, black rhinos, and African wild dogs. It's also home to the world’s largest remaining population of wild cheetahs and dozens of globally threatened birds, such as the slaty egret.

Describing ReconAfrica’s “sustainable approach,” former chairman Jay Park said that the company works with Namibia and Botswana “collaboratively with a full commitment to the land, water, wildlife, and people of these two countries that have invited us, in good faith, to explore possibilities to achieve the energy sovereignty that most other nations enjoy.”

In a series of eight articles since October 2020, National Geographic details ReconAfrica’s public ambitions for what the company’s leaders still claim is a huge oil “play,” its ongoing drilling and seismic explorations, and its numerous alleged circumventions of Namibian regulations and law. The reports show how the company allegedly didn’t adequately consult with local communities about the full drilling plan as required by Namibian law; intimidated local opponents; violated its promise to line its drilling waste pits to prevent groundwater pollution; failed to secure legally required water and land permits; drilled inside Kapinga Kamwalye Conservancy without legal rights, and bulldozed roads illegally through protected areas.

Now, high-resolution satellite images provided by SkyTruth reveal that by December 2022, ReconAfrica had again carried out illegal road construction inside Kapinga Kamwalye Conservancy. Namibian conservancies are legally protected areas managed and used by local communities. This time, the company illegally widened an existing road inside the conservancy and extended it across the Omatako River, allowing 18 wheelers to service a fourth well, proposed to be drilled a few miles outside Kapinga Kamwalye. This violates the company’s legally binding management plan, which says roads must avoid sensitive areas, including the “Omatako and its various tributaries.” The Omatako seasonally feeds the Okavango Delta with water.

According to Namibian law, anyone who wants to build a road inside a conservancy must get written approval from its management committee, but ReconAfrica’s roadwork was done without permission. “We were not informed,” says Thomas Muronga, Kapinga Kamwalye’s chairperson from October 2019 to February 2023. Permission was never given, and “it worries us deeply.”

ReconAfrica’s new road fractures habitat for the conservancy’s imperiled elephants and African wild dogs. Muronga notes that elephants “are no longer using the route they used to follow.” The animals are now migrating into unprepared villages, eating as they go and “destroying their crop fields.” The road also could facilitate deforestation and incursions by commercial poachers.

ReconAfrica did not respond to any questions from National Geographic.

On November 24, 2022, ReconAfrica announced in the Namibian government’s New Era newspaper that it aims to drill 12 more wells in Namibia, and on February 6, 2023, the company released an environmental impact assessment, allowing for public comment until February 27. Now, the Namibian government is deciding whether to issue a new permit to drill these additional wells.

This ambitious plan doesn’t appear to square with information ReconAfrica made public late last year. On November 24, the day its independent auditor, Deloitte LLP, resigned, ReconAfrica filed unaudited financial statements for 2022, prepared by management. The managers noted then, and again in their latest March 1 filing, “the existence of material uncertainties that may cast significant doubt” on whether the company can continue as a “going concern,” signaling that ReconAfrica is low on operating capital and may need to raise new financing to continue its exploration.

A few weeks later, in a December online call with investors, Grayson Andersen, ReconAfrica’s head of capital markets, said that although the company hadn’t yet found “a commercial accumulation of oil and gas,” it still had “a working petroleum system.” Andersen said there was “enough cash to fund our exploration” through most of 2023. “It can’t be stressed enough that we own 8.5 million acres, the entirety of the Kavango Basin,” Andersen said, referring to the geological formation–larger than Belgium– that cradles the Okavango Delta’s vulnerable watershed. Progress on the fourth well would move ahead, he continued, and will show that ReconAfrica is gifted with “the largest undiscovered on-shore hydrocarbon basin in the world.”


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