Kenyan Oil, Hot and Getting Hotter: Interview with Taipan’s Maxwell Birley
Kenya has become the hottest oil and gas venue in East Africa since big discoveries were made in the country’s virgin oilfields last April. All eyes are on Kenya in 2013 to see how quickly--and economically they can develop those discoveries into production.
Nairobi based Taipan Resources Inc. (TPN-TSXV; TAIPF-PINK) is the 4th largest acreage owner in Kenya, and is getting ready to carry out seismic on Block 2B. They recently attracted Maxwell Birley as CEO. Mr. Birley has been instrumental in discovering more than 2 billion barrels of oil equivalent in his 30-year career—much of it in Africa and Asia.
In an exclusive interview with Oilprice.com, Taipan CEO Maxwell Birley discusses:
• Why Kenya is the hottest venue in East Africa
• Why 2013 will be a stellar year for Kenya
• Why the regulatory environment remains attractive
• Why Kenya outranks its neighbours
• Why infrastructure will be in place in time for commercial activity
• Why this venue is good for the juniors
• Why the Somalia security risk remains low
• What Taipan is really chasing
Oilprice.com: There were some major discoveries in Kenya last year. Could you give me some colour on these discoveries that has the market thinking Kenya is now one of the hottest exploration spots on earth?
Maxwell Birley: There are a couple—or 2 billion--reasons actually. First, two recent discoveries by Tullow in the Tertiary Lokichar basin of Kenya are in similar geological settings as the discoveries also made by Tullow in the Albertine Basin in Uganda, just to the west.
Uganda has over 2 billion barrels, and the discoveries are similar enough that one could assume the eventual size of the resources in the Lokichar basin could be in the billions of barrels range as well.
There are also other Tertiary basins in Kenya that are attractive. Based on geochemical work we recently did it’s possible that the eventual hydrocarbon resource size for the whole of Kenya could be much higher than this.
Being specific the unrisked prospective resources for Taipan’s acreage in Kenya is 530 million barrels. We also believe that this estimate will likely increase to approximately 1.0 billion on completion of our studies.
These estimates are for only 2 blocks in Kenya, if this is reasonably extrapolated to other blocks across the country one can easily forecast very significant hydrocarbon resource sizes indeed.
Oilprice.com: What’s the easiest and most challenging thing about working with the Kenyan government and in the Kenyan political climate?
Maxwell Birley: The Ministry of Energy is always ready for a meeting. They listen to our concerns and take the appropriate action. They quickly follow up and give us the support that we need with other Ministries. In the field the local administration is also very helpful. We have regular meetings to make sure our work continues without a hitch.
With regard to the political climate, there is an election coming up in March 2013. We’re making arrangements so that we do not have a slowdown in seismic operations during that period. The last elections in 2007 were associated with some “geographically limited” security issues, however these were located far from our areas of operation, so we are not expecting the elections to have much impact on our operations.
Oilprice.com: The Kenyan government is reviewing its oil and gas regulations. Among the suggested amendments is one that would see the National Oil Corporation (NOC) get a 25% interest in oil properties that foreign firms are operating in Kenya, but this would put the government in a precarious position vis-à-vis attracting investors. How do you see this playing out in the end?
Maxwell Birley: The government is reviewing the terms that shall apply for licences/contracts that will be granted in the future. Oil companies will review all the terms on offer at the time of bid submission and compare them to the attractiveness of the acreage.
Oilprice.com: In November last year, Kenya expelled Norwegian Statoil, after revoking its exploration license. Is Nairobi increasingly ‘policing’ exploration, and what will this mean for investors in the near/medium term?
Maxwell Birley: One of the main functions of the Ministry is to regulate the companies undertaking exploration activities in Kenya. We feel confident, as in many other countries where we have worked, that if you carry out your commitments in the timeframe of the PSC then your license is 100% secure. If we decide to go into the next phases of exploration on Block 2B we can continue to explore for hydrocarbons on the block for another 4.5 years without concerns to the validity of our contract.
Oilprice.com: How does the industry view the financial terms offered by Nairobi in oil and gas?
Maxwell Birley: We believe the terms are reasonably attractive, at least for an oil discovery. The reason that only a few exploration wells were drilled in the past was due to the lack of exploration success—and this was driven by the lack of understanding by the oil companies of the basins. It wasn’t because of financial terms offered by the government.
Now that a discovery has been made and our knowledge is increasing, we are going to see a significant increase in drilling activity and therefore reserve additions to the country.
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Oilprice.com: Is Kenya becoming more a game for the majors rather than the juniors, and do you think we will see more joint ventures in the near future?
Maxwell Birley: In our opinion there is a place for small companies at every stage of the development of an oil province. But it’s definitely good news for those juniors with large land positions already in the country. The early movers--i.e. the companies like Taipan that acquired their acreage before the oil was discovered—will benefit from the recent oil discoveries. Most of the more prospective acreage has now been leased and therefore the competition for land is increasing.
As large volumes of oil are discovered, the large independent and Majors will start to notice the country more and more. The Majors—due to their size and complexity—tend to be exploration risk averse and prefer to concentrate on large, lower-risk developments.
Oilprice.com: How would you like to see Nairobi interact with the energy sector moving forward? And how does Kenya compare with other venues in the region like Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Sudan?
Maxwell Birley: There is no doubt that Nairobi is a premium location for business, tourism and families. This is illustrated by the fact that many multi-nationals operating in the sub-Sarahan African region have their head offices in Nairobi. Regarding interaction, it is the oil industry that will need to develop an active and well respected industry body so that broad industry issues can be discussed at the higher levels.
Oilprice.com: Kenya is clearly the East African leader in oil infrastructure, and is now starting the Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia Transit corridor (LAPSSET) project. But it will cost $25 billion for the roads, the 1200 km pipeline and 120,000 barrel-per-day refinery. How feasible do think this project is and why? Is it feasible in the timeframe projected by Nairobi?
Maxwell Birley: The resources in Uganda and to some extend south Sudan must be exported. A pipeline through Kenya seems to be the most feasible.
Regarding the time line, having 2.5 billion barrels sitting in the ground just west of Kenya in Uganda is a really strong motivation to build the pipeline quickly. In South Sudan I think they started pumping oil back up north again now, but I think they will want to go through Kenya in the near future.
Whether it’s LAPSSET or the Tullow consortium someone is going to build a pipeline through Kenya to the coast in the next few years. We think the pipeline will be located within 175 kilometres from our acreage. The pipeline will be good for everybody in the region but it should be particularly positive for us.
So when we make a discovery on Block 2B, the pipeline will be in the construction phase. In the interim we’ll truck the oil by bowser the early production from the fields. Then, depending on the size of any discoveries, we’ll build a connecting pipeline into the pipeline from Uganda. I think we’re in a very fortunate position now.
Oilprice.com: In terms of exploration what are the ‘sweet spots’ in Kenya?
Maxwell Birley: Definitely the Anza Basin. Currently, the proven sweet spots are in the Tertiary sediments of the rift basins of Uganda and Kenya. More specifically to Kenya in the Lokichar Basin as proven by the Ngamia and Twiga wells by Africa Oil.
These basins form part of the larger East African Rift system. This is a very extensive rift system and many new plays will be discovered in the next few years. The Anza Basin is the largest of these East African rift basins and 10 times the size of Uganda’s Albertine Basin and Kenya’s Lokichar Basin. This rift contains Jurassic, Cretaceous and Tertiary sediments.
Taipan is exploring for oil in the south eastern end of the Anza basin. Located on block 2B we have proven more than 9,500 feet of Tertiary section on the block. From the geochemical modelling we have undertaken we see the same oil source rocks in the Anza Basin that are present in the Lokichar basin, which are highly likely to be mature for oil generation on Block 2B. In addition we also believe that more oil discoveries will be made in the Cretaceous and Jurassic basins if you can find favourable places to drill.
Oilprice.com: What has Taipan’s proprietary technical work in Block 2B in the Anza Basin demonstrated so far?
Maxwell Birley: The Anza basin has proven oil-prone Cretaceous source that in places is potentially in the gas window (Bogal gas discovery), however our technical work has also demonstrated that the basin has an active Tertiary lacustrine (lake) oil source that is in the oil window. Consequently, the Anza basin has an excellent chance of being a much more significant oil producing basin than the small rift basins that have so far been discovered.
Oilprice.com: And that’s what you’re really chasing here—with these roughly 10 million acres in the Anza Basin—the tertiary play...
Maxwell Birley: Agreed. What we’re primarily chasing in Block 2B is the same Tertiary oil play that Tullow inherited originally in Uganda. The discoveries there were the main reason Africa Oil and Tullow drilled the Ngamia and Twiga oil wells in Kenya—which have also been very successful. Of course, don’t overlook the fact we also have a secondary Cretaceous oil play in the block, that appears to be broadly analogous to the Cretaceous plays present in the Muglad Melut basins of southern Sudan and is the main focus of exploration efforts in Block 10A, operated by Africa Oil Corp.
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Regarding the rest of our acreage, in Block 1 for example where we have a 20% interest in a 31,781 Km2 block we are chasing older Cretaceous, Jurassic and Permo-Triassic plays. The block is located in an extension of the successful Ogaden Basin of Ethiopia and Somalia. We think the block will be very prospective as it is surrounded by oil seeps and a well that recovered oil on test.
The 2 blocks combined makes us the 4th largest acreage holder in Kenya. In terms of near-term drilling and catalysts in the region, we have Tertiary, Cretaceous and Jurassic plays on Block 1 and Block 2B that will be drilled in the next 12 to 18 months.
Oilprice.com: Tell us what 2013 will look like for exploration in Kenya?
Maxwell Birley: Ten exploration wells should be drilled in Kenya in 2013. Based on the previous success rate it is expected that a significant number of these will be discoveries. Tullow will continue drilling wells on Blocks 10BB and 13T on the west side of the country to find more oil in that string of pearls.
Also we shall shortly get the results of the Paipai-1 well which is currently drilling in northern part of the Anza Basin. The well is testing Cretaceous & Jurassic plays, with a potential 121 million barrels. Other wells including Sabisa and Kinyonga also expected to be drilled in 2013.
Oilprice.com: For Kenya, a discovery at Paipai-1 would prove that oil discoveries of Sudan extend into Kenya. What would it mean for Taipan?
Maxwell Birley: There have already been Cretaceous gas discoveries in Kenya. Taipan believes that if you can find the Cretaceous that has not been buried too deep it will be prospective for oil. However we think the Paipai well is very high risk as it seems likely to be a recent tectonic inversion structure and therefore may be breached by recent faulting. We think we can find on Block 2B Cretaceous structures that are oil prone that have not been breached by recent faulting. So if that well does come in then it is going to be good news for the Anza Basin in general, but if dry it will not write off the Cretaceous potential in our block. Having said that I should point out that this is not our main focus at this time.
Oilprice.com: What about other prospects, like the Kinyonga well?
Maxwell Birley: Kinyonga is the next big prospect that is going to be drilled by Africa Oil Corp. and that is very meaningful for us. Kinyonga, which is on Block 9, will be located relatively close to our block, is both Tertiary and Cretaceous prospect. It has an unrisked resource estimate of 320 million barrels prospective, and it is one of the largest prospects in Africa Oil’s portfolio of drilling targets. Africa Oil also has another prospect called Pundamilia which is even closer to our block. This prospect has a unrisked resource Best estimate of 402 million barrels and a High estimate of 952 million barrels which I believe is the largest prospect in Africa Oil’s portfolio.
Oilprice.com: And what is the status of Kinoyonga?
Maxwell Birley: The timeline Africa Oil report for Kinoyonga is the 2nd half of 2013.
Oilprice.com: That would be a pretty big corollary for Taipan ….
Maxwell Birley: I think that even prior to getting those drilling results; investors are going to become more aware that the Tertiary play extends into our block. This was proven by the Hothori well which encountered 9500 ft. of Tertiary sediments. Better than this based on seismic data we estimate that in parts of the block there could be greater than 15,000 feet of Tertiary sediments.
Oilprice.com: What can we expect from Taipan over the next six months?
Maxwell Birley: Taipan has contracted BGP to acquire up to 800 kms of 2D seismic survey and Arkex to acquire a block wide FTG survey both over Block 2B. The seismic will commence recording in January 2013 and the FTG in February. Both surveys will be completed and interpreted prior to the 1st June deadline to complete the work. We expect to enter the first additional exploration period and are planning on drilling a well late 2013 early 2014.
Taipan has a 20% interest in Block 1 where Afren has recorded 1900 kms of seismic data. After the seismic has been processed and interpreted the company will commence preparations for well to be drilled in late 2013/early 2014.
Oilprice.com: What do you expect to learn from this North Eastern data?
Maxwell Birley: We will be acquiring world class seismic data with an extremely high fold in Block 2B. We may record data with fold as high as 540 (other operators in Kenya usually only record at 60 fold). We will do this so that we get excellent signal to noise ratio and seismic data improvement. This will then enable us to predict with some certainty the areas that have high shale to sand ratios. This in turn will indicate where the Tertiary lakes sediments were deposited. This will dramatically increase the chances of drilling a successful oil well.
Oilprice.com: Let’s close off then with a note on security and Taipan’s potential concerns in that area...
Maxwell Birley: Our acreage is in a remote region with very few inhabitants. We always take the appropriate health and safety precautions for example we’ve carried out detailed security risk assessments and we have visited the areas on a number of occasions. We work with other operators and security companies to ensure we have good local information.
To mitigate the risk, we have 50 to 60 armed police on the seismic crew to supply physical security. More importantly we have excellent support from the government and local authorities. We are in the process of undertaking some CSR water projects so that local people benefit from our activities. We also have a team from the area that is in the field communicating continuously to ensure that the local community understands what we are doing and observes the benefits of working with Taipan.
So in summary, we take it all pretty seriously. There are risks, however, it’s a place where you can work, so we’re being very respectful and careful to nurture successful relationships.
Oilprice.com: Has Kenya’s intervention in Somalia had any impact on exploration in the border area?
Maxwell Birley: Yes, it has ensured that oil companies can undertake their work in relatively safe conditions.
Oilprice.com: Mr. Birley, best of luck. Thank you for your time and we will check in with you later in the year. For those readers interested in finding out more about Taipan Resources please visit their webpage: http://www.taipanresources.com/