Oil rush in Africa's parks drives hunt for eco-friendly methods
* Seismic testing changing to protect sensitive areas
* Oil rush brings operations close to lions and lemurs
* Industry activities high on conservation radar screens
By Ed Stoddard
CAPE TOWN, Nov 28 (Reuters) - East Africa's oil rush is spreading into parks and protected areas, prompting companies to develop new ways to explore for hydrocarbons without disturbing wildlife and natural treasures such as rare fossils.
From Uganda, where France's Total is trying new and less intrusive methods of seismic testing in a national park, to Madagascar, where operations are under way next to a UNESCO site, the industry is working in locations where damage would trigger public outcries.
"We can't take anything for granted. We are abutting next to a UNESCO National Park," said Stewart Ahmed, chief executive officer of Madagascar Oil, which plans the first commercial crude oil production in the impoverished Indian Ocean island state.
"We are going to be under scrutiny and our pipelines, for example, will have to skirt around those kinds of areas," he said on the sidelines of an Africa oil conference organised by Global Pacific & Partners.
When an area is declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO -the cultural and scientific arm of the United Nations - it immediately comes under close observation by conservationists.
Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park, next to Madagascar Oil's operations in a rugged and remote region of the country's west, is known for towering limestone pinnacles and is home to rare wildlife such as the red-fronted brown lemurs.
"World Heritage Sites are of particular concern. Many companies are committed to not developing in World Heritage Sites and conservation groups are opposed to developments in such areas," said Ray Victurine of the U.S.-based Wildlife Conservation Society.
"So there is a lot of scrutiny with regard to developments there," he said.
SEISMIC AND HUMAN EVOLUTION
In Uganda, where Total is exploring in Murchison Falls National Park, home to elephants, lions and a rare giraffe sub-species, the company is using seismic technology which the industry says is less disruptive than traditional methods for pinpointing oil reserves.
Typically, seismic tests involve clearing bush in a straight line and blasting explosives. Echo patterns are then analysed to detect oil pockets beneath the surface.
Total has said that in Murchison it was using "one of the latest cableless technologies available in the industry".
Because cables will not be used to record the seismic signals, the technology, provided by Texas-based FairfieldNodal, does not require the removal of vegetation along the grid line.
In northern Kenya, Africa-focused producer Tullow Oil is making seismic adjustments as it works in a region renowned for hominid fossils that shed light on humanity's evolutionary past.
Blasting the "missing link" by mistake would not sit well in scientific circles.
"We have paleontologists working on our teams in Kenya," said Paul McDade, Tullow's chief operating officer.
Because of advances in technology, seismic lines no longer have to be perfectly straight as computing can compensate for any bends or detours.
"You used to just shoot a straight seismic line. What we do now is send a party out ahead and if they find anything of interest we cordon it off and run the seismic line around it and then carry on," McDade told Reuters.
Seismic technology is becoming less intrusive in other ways as well.
Calgary-based Polaris Seismic International has developed seismic equipment employing an "accelerated drop" system, eliminating the need for blasting. It has been used in villages and wildlife areas in Tanzania.
Its system, the Explorer 860, thumps the earth with a hydraulically driven hammer. The energy goes straight down so wildlife and people nearby are not disturbed. Geological data is collected by geophones set up on the surface 6 kms (3-1/2 miles) on either side.