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James Stafford

James Stafford

James Stafford is the Editor of Oilprice.com

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The Largest Oil Play Of The Decade? Interview With Daniel Jarvie

As we approach the climax of a potentially enormous Permian-style discovery in the opening of Namibia’s giant, deep Kavango Basin, internationally acclaimed geochemist Daniel Jarvie explains in an exclusive interview why there’s so much cause for excitement--and why the independent explorer who single handedly owns the entire basin is becoming so well known.

In this interview, Jarvie--one of the world’s most famous geochemist ‘wildcatters’ renowned for his work worldwide, a major force behind Barnett Shale exploration since the 1980s and former chief geochemist for EOG Resources--explains:

  • Why Africa is the final frontier for oil and gas
  • Why Namibia is the onshore sweet spot
  • Why it’s all about the small, independent explorer, Reconnaissance Energy Africa 
  • Why he jumped on this opportunity
  • Why it’s all about the source rock, and Kavango’s got it
  • How a non-typical style of drilling might get them there faster
  • How Kavango compares to the Permian Basin and the Eagle Ford
  • How the numbers could be so high they would be laughable 

Jarvie recently released a report on Reconnaissance Energy Africa’s Kavango Basin, putting the potential at 120 billion boe (barrels of oil equivalent) which, if it all pans out, could make this one of the biggest oil finds of the last few decades. 

James Stafford: Outside of offshore Guyana/Suriname, there hasn’t been any exciting discovery news in the oil patch in a long time--especially onshore. So, why should we be excited about Namibia right now, or about Africa in general?

Daniel Jarvie: Two reasons: First, Africa is the final frontier for oil discoveries because it’s so vastly under-explored and we could even be looking at the last major onshore oil discovery on Earth. 

Second, you can forget about super-majors like Exxon, Chevron when it comes to unconventional exploration outside of the United States… they aren’t the ones who make these onshore discoveries work. Instead, you should be looking for locations where independents are out in force looking for the next big thing.

So, why should we be excited right now about Namibia? Precisely because there is a very strong independent junior explorer here sitting on a sedimentary basin that rivals South Texas in a massively under-explored region. 

James Stafford: Can you tell us more about Recon Africa in Namibia?

Daniel Jarvie: First of all, RECO founder, Craig Steinke jumped in on this in 2012. He didn’t just jump, he attacked: Craig bought up the entire Kavango Basin, which spans Northeast Namibia and Northwest Botswana. The Namibian license covers 6.3 million acres. The Botswana license covers another 2.45 million acres. And they offer large scale plays that are both conventional and unconventional.

James Stafford: What was it that interested you in this project as a geochemist?

Daniel Jarvie: I’ve worked all over the world, including in South Africa, Uganda, Tanzania and elsewhere, and Namibia was new to me and exciting, but it’s the petroleum systems involved here that make this narrative really flow. 

If you’re not a geologist or geochemist or related, as an investor you can fall into a bit of a black hole with these plays. There’s a lot of talk by promoters about “big traps” and their potential to hold a billion barrels of oil. But those “traps”--which are basically containers where hydrocarbons can get trapped -- mean absolutely nothing if there’s no source rock to charge those containers. Source rock is where hydrocarbons are created, and it's the source rock that’s responsible for a promising “petroleum system”. 

I travel the world and collect source rocks. 

For me, as a geological chemist, my excitement about Namibia--and Recon Africa’s Kavango Basin--was all about the source rock, which is one component of a petroleum system. A trap without a source rock charge is called a dry hole – which shows you the importance of source rock charge to the container.

James Stafford: So what specifically was it that really made you a believer in Kavango’s petroleum system then?

Daniel Jarvie: Well originally I got to see the core from the Owambo Basin that flanks Kavango. The core is a dark, rich, organic shale. That’s what prompted my interest. And since then, every test and piece of news that has come out of this basin has only made me more confident.

Survey and analysis have already confirmed the basin reaches depths of up to 30,000 feet, and as geologist Bill Cathey has already noted, he hasn’t seen  a basin in the world of this depth and these geological conditions that isn’t home to a major petroleum system or multiple petroleum systems such as in the Permian basin of West Texas-New Mexico.

James Stafford: So, what’s next and what should potential investors expect with the next big news to come out of Kavango?

Daniel Jarvie: Now it’s all about targeting the drill, but the results of the next tests will be major drivers. This is where we prove up a working hydrocarbon system, so it’s a very big deal. 

What we’re looking for is a section to penetrate that will give us the most information. We’re drilling a stratigraphic test, which means geologically directed drilling to obtain information that will direct our efforts toward producing petroleum.  

But the three stratigraphic drills we’re doing aren’t just basic stratigraphic tests. They will be much more. They’re going to provide a lot of info on how much oil there is and what containers it has charged. That will be my job.

We need to know where the hydrocarbon system is and where it’s directed. With this bigger section in the countryside, we need to understand not only the source rock, but migration pathways with traps (containers) and seals (the lid on the container, i.e., the sweet spots).

James Stafford: From a technology standpoint, what can you tell us about the drill that would be relevant for investors who are keeping a close eye on Kavango?

Daniel Jarvie: Well one of the most important tech aspects of this is that we will also be drilling with water-based mud, which is a wonderful thing for me because it means we can identify pay zones that could otherwise be overlooked, e.g., low resistivity petroleum reservoirs such as the Middle Member of the Bakken formation.

If you aren’t an expert in drilling then you are unlikely to understand just how essential mud (drilling fluid) is when it comes to drilling. It’s what can make or break a discovery. That’s one reason so much by-passed pay is discovered, e.g., look at the Permian basin – it’s been explored for 100 years and they’re still finding pay zones that have been overlooked or bypassed during drilling. As our initial drilling is both for discovery and science, the use of water-based mud is extremely important. Once production is in place, then changes can be implemented to the drilling fluid as desired.

Frequently, drillers who aren’t using this method end up drilling through a pay-zone without even noticing. For the uninitiated, a pay-zone is a favorable location for oil and gas production. It means it’s a highly exploitable zone. And the type of mud you use determines your likelihood of missing a big pay-zone. 

That’s been a major problem in Mexico and even in the Permian basin for example, where most of the wells are drilled with oil-based mud. Oil-based mud makes it very difficult for geochemists to identify oil in the system due to the oil in the drilling fluid. That’s because the oil-based mud is reused and mixed in with other oil--sometimes even from a different basin-- so it skews the picture and makes a pay-zone difficult to pinpoint from a geochemical perspective

So, water-based mud is ideal for me, and that’s what we’re doing at Recon Africa. We’ll be able to get outstanding data on both conventional and unconventional drill spots. And we won’t be missing any pay-zones. 

James Stafford: Why isn’t drilling with water-based mud the go-to if it’s such a problem?

Daniel Jarvie: There is a difference when exploring in an unknown basin versus production drilling where the oil container has been pinpointed. In the latter case oil-based mud enhances drilling rates (i.e.,minimizes expense). On the other hand, we are trying to find oil and using water-based mud allows us to chemically see the oil. There are certainly many logging operations that allow assessment of petroleum charge, but geochemistry is the only technique that truly measures oil itself rather than inferring that it is oil.

Drillers are obsessed with drilling rates – how fast can we drill the hole to minimize drilling expense – a noble and economic cause. However, I go by the old axiom ‘our job is not to drill a hole, but to find petroleum’.  As these are the first tests in the basin, we need the optimum samples to analyze for the presence of oil and source rocks.

Oil-based mud does have a number of advantages. It allows drilling more quickly because it lubricates the bit; it carries the cuttings back; it helps prevent shale from slopping into the hole etc. But from an exploration point of view, it has serious drawbacks. 

One of the key characteristics of ReconAfrica is that the company owns it’s own drilling rig, so it’s much less concerned about the speed of drilling and more concerned with quality of data.

Many years ago I was working with a major in the Permian and I told them that if they drilled with water-based mud they’d find more bypass pay. The manager stood up and said “We find bypass pay every day”. Their geologist responded: “Yeah, and we bypass pay everyday.” 

James Stafford: Looking at your report on Kavango and the general potential on page 2… These numbers look incredible. Have you come across numbers like this before? Are there any other plays to compare it to? 

Daniel Jarvie: In the report, just released, I put total petroleum generation potential over Recon’s 8.75 million acres at 120 billion boe (Barrels of Oil Equivalent). Now, that’s only looking at 1,641 sections, which represents only 12% of Recon’s total holdings in the basin. As I’ve said, I’ve been conservative with the numbers, and even so, if the potential pans out in full, they are pretty comparable to the Permian Wolfcamp and the Eagle Ford in Texas. 

And ReconAfrica owns the entire basin, subject only to a government royalty. They’ve been extremely savvy about getting land. 

James Stafford: Beyond using only 12% of Recon’s Kavango holdings, how conservative are you being?

Daniel Jarvie: I really can’t stress strongly enough how conservative I’ve been here. I like to be conservative with numbers. Most analyst and industry reports stress the total organic carbon content (TOC) of source rocks, but that’s only half the story for hydrocarbon formation. The other key component is hydrogen. Good source rocks have not only good TOC values (say 2-7%) but also high hydrogen content in the organic carbon.

For my numbers on Recon, I only used a hydrogen content of 358 (mg/g), which is very conservative based on the rock I’ve seen from the Owambo basin. In other words, on a scale of 1-10, I used “3” for hydrogen content, which is quite modest. For comparison, the Eagle Ford source rock would be a 6 and the Permian Wolfcamp a 5.

Thickness is the other key part, and as we don’t know the thickness yet, we are going by what we saw in other sections, but there is 6,000 feet of Permian section in there so that’s a very good start. I anticipate a thickness of between 300 and 400 ft of net petroleum generating source rock.

James Stafford: And if its 400 feet thick, you are estimating the potential at 120 billion barrels of total petroleum generated. And you think this is conservative?

Daniel Jarvie: I do. And it’s not even an unusual number for a basin this size, and this depth. The Eagle Ford and Permian Wolfcamp petroleum potentials are even higher using comparable thickness. They could be sitting on something absolutely huge. 

If you apply those numbers to the entire basin they would be off the wall. 

They would be laughable because they are so high. 

James Stafford: And what would be a normal recoverability rate for a basin of this size and type?

Daniel Jarvie: One of the problems is that no one seems to know how much petroleum is in place when it comes to these kind of plays. This goes back to the Barnett shale. There were early reports that there were 10-15% recovery of the shale gas. But when they got a better handle of oil and gas in place it was more like 6-8%. And for oil, it’s much harder to produce. In the Permian I imagine they are getting 6-8% but it is more of a hybrid system that is better for production. The heterogeneity in our basin is expected to be comparable and therefore provide a high recovery rate from those charged containers.

James Stafford: Well on a 150 billion barrels that’s not bad at all. But let’s swing back to thickness for a moment. I noticed that the Owambo basin slide shows that the Kavango basin is thicker?

Daniel Jarvie: Yes, while the Owambo Basin showed extremely promising core, its depth as it relates to temperature was a major issue; it had not been cooked sufficiently to generate petroleum. What we can see is that there’s a structural high before dipping down into the Kavango Basin, so we are thinking the thickness is probably close to double in this section, maybe more, and higher temperatures.

I have a feeling that it’s more based on what I’ve seen. So we believe it’s a very thick shale and it’s at the optimal depth to get oil production. 

See, everyone talks about the Eagle Ford, but unless you are in a sweet spot you have a hard time producing there. The sweet spot of the Eagle Ford has a 75% Kerogen conversion window, but if you move up to the 50% or 25% wells, those wells are not economic. 

James Stafford: How would you compare the Kavango to the Eagle Ford?

Daniel Jarvie: Well the Kavango actually is quite different. It’s more like the Permian Basin, and that’s a big plus.  

The Eagle Ford is marine carbonate source rock, and it averages 60% carbonate plus it is only about 220-250 ft thick. Kavango is dramatically different to that. From what we know so far, it’s more akin to the Permian basin, a marine shale that generates a high quality oil, and it is thick and heterogeneous system. I expect to find stacked pay zones throughout any source rock systems. There will likely be multiple source rocks by the way.

If you want to get a lot of oil out the system you love the heterogeneity. That’s one of the reasons the Permian works so well. It’s also another reason to be excited about Kavango. 

James Stafford: If you prove this system up, what comes next?

Daniel Jarvie: Then it becomes phenomenally more interesting.  

We will probably have some oil production shows and indications of where it is. We will be able to tell the thermal maturity and can expand it across the basin so we can high grade different prospects by their depth and burial history. 

Right now we don’t have a good handle on that. The formation got laid down hundreds of millions of years ago but we don’t know what has happened to it since. And that’s what the first well will help with. And that will point us in the right direction. 

James Stafford: How does it do that? 

Daniel Jarvie: Think of it as a container that has a “pipeline” running to it from the source rock (a migration pathway). If we drill through the so-called pipeline we can identify oil that has travelled through it toward a big conventional container. Does it go to that trap? So it points to the direction the oil is going if it has gone through the system. It will pinpoint which trap should be best.

In fact the pipeline itself may be a reservoir such as the Middle Member of the Bakken formation.

James Stafford: How does RECO’s Kavango stand up to your long-time wildcatting experience?

Daniel Jarvie: Given the nature of the basin and the tremendous thickness, this is pretty much a no brainer...It will be productive and I’m expecting high-quality oil.”

This was the issue when I worked in Uganda, for instance. We could see there was a system but knew there would be waxy oil. But Kavango is different: The system is marine and terrestrial so it should give us high-quality oil and allow it to move and be produced. You need to be able to flow the oil for optimum recovery. 

The bottom line is this: The Kavango Basin has all the characteristics necessary for conventional and unconventional petroleum systems. Although I’m known for my unconventional work, I’m actually hopeful that the conventional exceeds the unconventional. Why? Because conventional reservoirs are inherently more productive.

James Stafford: And for our readers who don’t know, what do you mean when you say rank wildcat?

Daniel Jarvie: It means there’s not a single well on the property. It’s like discovering a new continent. 

There is nothing to go by except the aero-mag and the seismic. It doesn’t mean it’s different. Just that it hasn’t been explored and wasn’t known about before.

James Stafford: How has a system this large and promising not been discovered before?

Daniel Jarvie: Well, when it comes to discovery, it’s often up to the independents to find the play. The majors then have the resources to come in and produce the system once it's been discovered. Look at the discovery and development of unconventional plays – it’s the independents who led the way starting with Mitchell Energy. In these unexplored oil frontiers, opportunities like this have just been overlooked.

James Stafford: Ok, and what does the seismic data you have so far tell you about the property exactly?

Daniel Jarvie: Well, the seismic data is very important because that shows where these traps or ‘containers’ likely are. 

The geologists and geophysicists working on Kavango have done a fantastic job mapping it out

If you see a cross section, what you see on the seismic is where the faults and potential traps are. That’s what you’re looking for. Where are the structures (containers) that have the potential to hold oil?

And then I come in and try to prove that the source rock has generated the oil they need to fill that trap.

James Stafford: Wow. But it just seems so unlikely that no one has stumbled across this play before now.

Daniel Jarvie: Yes, but, like I said, this is Africa. Look at East Africa: they are only just coming into production. So it’s unusual to come across an overlooked basin, but given the location and position in the world, it’s not overly surprising. The more surprising element is that the government actually had the aero-mag but didn’t have the expertise to realize what it was showing them. But ReconAfrica did, and jumped in and scooped it up before anyone had time to blink. 

Which leads to a final point: The Namibian government is great to work with, making way for viable exploration and production efforts. An oil friendly regime is vital for any oil project going forward.

James Stafford: Dan, in an effort to provide my readers with full transparency I should note that you are a shareholder in ReconAfrica, correct?

Daniel Jarvie: Yes, that is correct. I was a significant early investor in the company when it was private.“

Other companies looking towards new oil frontiers for big returns:

Exxon (NYSE:XOM) is another company looking to cash in on Namibia’s oil boom. It recently acquired additional 7 million net acres from the Namibian government for a block extending from the shoreline to about 135 miles offshore in water depths up to 13,000 feet, with exploration activities to begin by the end of this year.

What Exxon’s banking on is that Namibia, which once fit together with Brazil, shares the same geology as Brazil’s pre-salt bonanza basins, Santos and Campos, which have already proved enormously resource-rich, according to Deloitte. When oil demand returns to normal, this will put Exxon in a great position to take an edge over its biggest competitors.

Chevron (NYSE:CVX)
is another oil major with significant presence in Africa, particularly in Nigeria and Angola. In fact, the supermajor ranks among the top oil producers in the two African nations. Other areas on the continent where the company holds interests include Benin, Ghana, the Republic of Congo and Togo. Chevron also holds a 36.7 percent interest in the West African Gas Pipeline Company Limited, which supplies Nigerian natural gas to customers in the region.

While its interests are spread out among the continent, it’s all strategic. With bets on both oil and natural gas, Chevron is looking to take advantage of both of the fossil fuels. Though prices are still depressed at the moment, as fuel demand returns to normal, Chevron could be a big winner in as prices climb back up to pre-pandemic levels.

Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE:RDS.A) is no stranger to the oil and gas game in Africa. In fact, the Dutch oil giant began drilling in the region in the 1950s, and now has assets in over 20 countries across the continent. Though it has sold off a number of assets in the region in recent years, it continues to maintain a strong presence in South Africa, in particular.

Shell’s South African assets are key because the government has been significantly more stable than some of the other big bets on the continent. Moreover, it’s been very supportive of Shell in its endeavors in the country. Its operations in South Africa include retail and commercial fuel, lubricant, chemical and manufacturing. It’s also heavily invested in upstream exploration. It even holds the exploration rights to the Orange Basin Deep Water area, off the country’s west coast and has applications for shale gas exploration rights in the Karoo, in central South Africa.

Total (NYSE:TOT) is another major betting big on Africa’s potential. It has been present in the region for over 90 years, and it is showing no sign of reducing its footprint anytime soon. In fact, just recently, the company announced a major oil discovery offshore Suriname.

But Total also maintains a ‘big picture’ outlook across all of its endeavors. It is not only aware of the needs that are not being met by a significant portion of the world’s growing population, it is also hyper-aware of the looming climate crisis if changes are not made. In its push to create a better world for all, it has committed to contributing to each of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. This is good news for investors who often worry about how local entities are impacted when global energy giants move into their countries.

Suncor Energy (NYSE:SU; TSX:SU): As one of the biggest names in energy, Suncor has adopted a number of high-tech solutions for finding, pumping, storing, and delivering its resources. Not only is it big in the oil sector, however, it is a leader in renewable energy. Recently, the company invested $300 million in a wind farm located in Alberta. 

While its primarily based out of North America, its assets in Africa and the Middle East should not be ignored. Though the oil downturn has weighed on the company’s share price this year, many analysts are pointing to a turnaround, from which Suncor is likely to benefit.

When the rebound in crude prices finally materializes, giants like Suncor are sure to do well out of it. While many of the oil majors have given up on oil sands production – those who focus on technological advancements in the area have a great long-term outlook. And that upside is further amplified by the fact that it is currently looking particularly under-valued compared to

Tourmaline Oil Corp (TSX:TOU) is another Canadian resource producer focusing on exploration, production, development and acquisition within Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin. The company is in possession of an extensive undeveloped land position with long-term growth opportunities and a large multi-year drilling inventory. Tourmaline’s strong leadership make the company a promising pick for investors looking to take advantage of the tremendous Canadian oil opportunities which are due for a strong rebound as oil prices inch higher.

Husky Energy Inc (TSX:HSE): This integrated oil and gas company out of Western Canada lives up to its name, fierce and driven for success. It’s already got a presence in some of the most well-known oil regions on the planet, but it hasn’t stopped there. It’s even positioned itself in Europe, Africa and as remote as the South China Sea.

Imperial Oil (TSX:IMO)  still has some of the lowest cost producing oil sands in Canada and that is going to pay off as oil prices continue to rise and new tech breakthroughs bring breakeven prices even lower. The management is well known for being conservative, but that certainly shouldn’t put investors off in a time when recovery is the buzzword of the day and consistency is sure to be rewarded.

Gibson Energy (TSX:GEI): has a long history in Canada’s oil and gas game. Established in 1953, Gibson knows the industry inside and out. The company has a diverse portfolio which includes transportation, storage, processing, marketing and distribution of oil, condensates, oilfield waste, refined products and natural gas. With Gibson’s huge array of assets and its multi-platform sales strategies, investors look to Gibson with confidence.

By James Stafford


Forward-Looking Statements. Statements contained in this document that are not historical facts are forward-looking statements that involve various risks and uncertainty affecting the business of Recon. All estimates and statements with respect to Recon’s operations, its plans and projections, size of potential oil reserves, comparisons to other oil producing fields, oil prices, recoverable oil, production targets, production and other operating costs and likelihood of oil recoverability are forward-looking statements under applicable securities laws and necessarily involve risks and uncertainties including, without limitation: risks associated with oil and gas exploration, timing of reports, development, exploitation and production, geological risks, heterogeneity rates, marketing and transportation, availability of adequate funding, volatility of commodity prices, imprecision of reserve and resource estimates, environmental risks, competition from other producers, government regulation, dates of commencement of production and changes in the regulatory and taxation environment. Actual results may vary materially from the information provided in this document, and there is no representation that the actual results realized in the future will be the same in whole or in part as those presented herein. Other factors that could cause actual results to differ from those contained in the forward-looking statements are also set forth in filings that Recon and its technical analysts have made, We undertake no obligation, except as otherwise required by law, to update these forward-looking statements except as required by law.

Exploration for hydrocarbons is a speculative venture necessarily involving substantial risk. Recon's future success will depend on its ability to develop its current properties and on its ability to discover resources that are capable of commercial production. However, there is no assurance that Recon's future exploration and development efforts will result in the discovery or development of commercial accumulations of oil and natural gas. In addition, even if hydrocarbons are discovered, the costs of extracting and delivering the hydrocarbons to market and variations in the market price may render uneconomic any discovered deposit. Geological conditions are variable and unpredictable. Even if production is commenced from a well, the quantity of hydrocarbons produced inevitably will decline over time, and production may be adversely affected or may have to be terminated altogether if Recon encounters unforeseen geological conditions. Adverse climatic conditions at such properties may also hinder Recon's ability to carry on exploration or production activities continuously throughout any given year.


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