* 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 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
"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
"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
Blasting the "missing link" by mistake would not sit well in
"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
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.