Historical Reflections: 18 Years of the Africa E&P Conference

With 2019 representing the 18th conference convened by the PESGB and HGS on African exploration and development, it is appropriate to review how the event has matured with time. The first such event was convened by the PESGB Africa SIG, led by Ray Bate, Nick Cameron and Val Clure, at the Millennium Hotel in 2001. Over 250 delegates attended, the majority of which were consultants, small operators and seismic companies. With hindsight, any operator selecting new venture acreage on the basis of what they heard during this first conference would have done pretty well. Presentations showcasing future potential entitled ‘Deep water prospectivity of NW Africa’, ‘Senegal is now ready to become the next African success’ and ‘New play types of deepwater Ghana’ illustrated some of the eventual successes of the African exploration story in the following two decades. The last of these, by John Craven, then of Dana, illustrated a number of sediment fairways on newly 2D acquired seismic, offshore Ghana, one of which would eventually be shown to contain the Jubilee field.

The title of this first conference ‘Africa; The success will continue’ has been proven to be true. The African conference has successfully alternated yearly between London and Houston, with larger venues being required as the number of attendees grew. An exploratory venture one year to Cape Town was less successful on attracting attendees, but did give the attendees a great opportunity to actually see some African turbidites in the field on the PESGB’s most distant ever field trip, to the Tanqua Karoo . During the second conference and the first in Houston, in 2002, the frontier deepwater East Africa play took centre stage. East Africa was to become an ongoing theme of subsequent conferences. In 2003, at the QE2 centre in London, talks outlined the geochemical case for the, then, true frontier areas of The East African rift petroleum system, and the ‘Potential of deepwater Tanzania and Mozambique’ focusing on the Oligocene play in the Rovuma Basin. What is striking is that none of these prescient presentations were given by the operators who eventually drilled the large discoveries, thus highlighting that these were long term team efforts involving contributions to the development of the play by seismic operators, academics, government promotors, and historical onshore and shallow water operators. The successful operators then integrated the understanding developed at a regional scale to unlock the potential at a prospect scale.

Photo 1: The highest attendance of any of the Africa conferences was at Wembley in 2013 with some 650 attendees and onsite registration having to be closed.

As the respective committees grew to include representatives from operators, contributions started to come in on drilling and development, enabling us to monitor several project cycles. There have been seven talks on the Jubilee Field and four on SNE in Senegal presented at different stages of their exploration, appraisal and development cycles. Plots of the geographical location of the papers presented in the first and last five years of the conference illustrate how activity has shifted in the period away from the four traditional producing countries of Angola, Nigeria, Libya and Algeria, to encompass (and in some cases predict) the discoveries in previously unproductive countries such as Mozambique, Tanzania, Kenya, Senegal and Mauritania (Figures 1&2).

Coupled with the success stories of the last two decades have been some high-profile failures. One of the strengths of the conference has been the willingness of some operators to exchange lessons learnt from unsuccessful exploration. Presentations by Tullow on the causes for lack of commercial success during their search for a Jubilee ‘look alike’ along the West Africa equatorial margins, from Ophir on their disappointing Ayame well in the Ivorian Basin of Cote D’Ivoire and from BP on the challenges of the Kwanza/Benguela Basin pre-salt are honourable examples. Though the latter paper, which detailed a lack of appreciation at the prospect stage for the potential for early high heat pulses, echoes a talk by Garry Karner of Lamont-Docherty, at the third conference in 2003 that predicted that much of the prospectivity of the West African Pre-Salt in hyperextended regions such as this, would be heavily impacted by the effects of such high heat pulses.  A reminder for us all that what may seem ‘academic’ at the time, are the insights of those who have the ability to think beyond paradigms and truly understand the geology that they are exploring.

The reflection of two successful decades of PESGB/HGS African conferences reinforces the need to accommodate papers from a wide spectrum of contributors across the industry. Original talks from academia, seismic companies (often the first to view data in new frontier plays), consultants and operators ensure the conference continues to supply the industry with unique insight into the geology of this wonderful continent and the economic prizes it can yield.

Photo 2: The international pavilion gives an opportunity for African countries to promote their opportunities and will be expanded on in 2019.

As the number of papers has increased annually, reaching a record 80 at the 16th conference, the technical committee face the ongoing challenge of ensuring the conference remains relevant, balanced and insightful. The seismic workshop was introduced at the 12th conference in London to ensure new data could be showcased in an appropriate manner utilising the latest platforms.  This has been a very successful initiative and now a key feature of the African conference.  At 18th conference in October 2019 a much larger dedicated room is available for this.

One criticism of the conference in the past has been the lack of African involvement. Described by a former HGS president, ‘this is a conference that alternates between two continents, discussing a third’. As a committee increasing the participation from African nations remains a key objective. Discussions are ongoing to hold country workshops at future conferences where government organisations could show case their opportunities and forthcoming licence rounds. Another includes the possibility of technical training course aimed at attracting a mix audience of national oil companies, government technical departments and even African universities. For our community to thrive we urge our membership put the word out and extend invitations to our African colleagues to join us. As we cement this events position as the world’s premier technical conference on the Petroleum Geology of Africa.

While it has not been a feature of the conference to publish full proceedings, a strength has been the detailed technical nature of the abstract books (without which this historical lookback could not have been compiled).  Confidentiality issues have meant that many companies are willing to present on key new discoveries and issues but not publish. So perhaps the strongest message of this review of past conferences highlights the benefit of having such a dedicated event and the need to be there in person, as relying on published papers will leave you decades out of date!

Fig 1: Papers presented in the first five years of the conference classified by country. Note the dominance of the main four producing countries (Angola, Nigeria, Libya, Algeria) at that time. Plus 35 other papers on 17 other countries.

Fig 2: Papers presented in the last five years of the conference classified by country. While Angola remains top, there is a now a much wider geographical spread including many countries in East and Northwest Africa in which new discoveries have been made. Plus 50 other papers on 20 other countries.