The return of prospecting companies is raising hopes, amongst some, of an economic upturn in this region hard hit by poverty, as well as fears over potential shale gas exploitation on this land dedicated to grazing
Morocco’s eastern steppe is comprised of sparsely populated, immense plateaus with scant vegetation. This arid decor is home to the nomads from the Bni Guil tribe, who live as best they can off their meagre sales at the weekly market in Tendrara.
The poverty in this region is endemic, affecting 28.5 per cent of the inhabitants, a level three times higher than in the rest of the country, according to the official figures published by the statistics office of the High Planning Commission.
Desertification and persistent poverty constitute major risks for the way of life of the last remaining nomads in the province.
And yet this population is by no means thrilled about the recent discovery of a gas field.
Sixty per cent of the national wealth in the Kingdom of Morocco is concentrated in just four of the country’s twelve regions. This economic and geographical fragmentation, inherited from the French colonial era, has proven immune to the state’s efforts to tackle the development disparities over the last decade.
In the context of this “mal-development”, the news of potential natural gas discoveries have been met with ambivalence amongst the local population. The scepticism reflects a lack of confidence in a state that has proved incapable of distributing the wealth created in the country.
Moreover, the villages of eastern Morocco have been the site of gas prospecting, which has never produced conclusive results, since the 1960s. The volume of the discoveries made was not enough to warrant exploration. Added to that, low natural gas prices on the international market also contributed to the major players’ lack of interest in investing in Morocco.
But the game changed in 2008, with the rocketing of fossil fuel prices, especially oil and gas. Since then, Morocco has seen a rush of energy prospecting companies.
“Morocco has 900,000 square kilometres of sedimentary basin with a high gas potential, and yet barely half of that has been seriously explored,” said the energy minister, Abdelkader Amara, during the 2014 Morocco Oil & Gas Summit, organised to attract investors to the sector.
Since then, 32 companies from the industry have received exploration permits and are expecting “promising” results.
Oil or gas companies such as Circle Oil, GulfSands, Repsol and Longreach are hard at work around the country, both onshore and offshore. Tendrara, in the east of Morocco, is one of the most “promising”.
The return of prospecting companies in 2016 is raising hopes, among some, of an economic upturn in this region hard hit by youth unemployment, as well as fears of potential shale gas exploitation in areas dedicated to grazing.
A history of prospecting
In 1966, Tendrara saw the arrival of Italian engineers from AGIP, the first gas explorers in the region.
“My father worked with them. He would tell us that those were the glory days. They were sure they would find gas, like in Algeria,” says Ahmed, who lives in Tendrara.
But these hopes were short lived. After two years of prospecting, the Italians packed up and left. More exploration followed in 1984, then in 1987, with the arrival of the Americans from Pennzoil, then Skidmore in 2000, in Talsint, and, finally, Maghreb Petroleum Exploration in 2006.
“People have grown weary of these foreign explorers and the locals are now wary about any exploration activity,” remarks Soufiane Touil, president of l’Association du Sud-Est pour le Développement et l’Environnement (Southeast Association for Development and the Environment), in Bouarfa.
In April 2016, British firm Sound Energy, received a permit to explore this area with its Moroccan partner, Oil & Gas Investment Fund (OGIF), which has close links to the authorities.
“We know these discoveries will not change the region overnight. Our neglected towns and villages are, above all, in need of basic infrastructure,” insists Touil.
Maâtarka, a small village of 400 inhabitants, offers an illustration of the overall devastation in the region. A quarter of its inhabitants lives under the poverty line. The health clinic has no running water. The village school is only open from time to time.
Since 1994, similar villages have been abandoned, with the departure, year after year, of young people who would rather live in the nearest urban centres.
“This place is dying a slow death,” protests Bachir Labied, president of the village.
Despite the huge needs in these villages, the hopes of gas being discovered are tempered by fears of the environmental consequences of this activity on land that is fragile.
The Association du Sud-Est pour le Développement et l’Environnement and the solidarity and cooperation forum ESCO have been battling for months against any prospective shale gas exploitation in this region.
“We are totally opposed to any shale gas prospecting in our region. The Moroccan government has repeatedly announced its wish to enter into the exploitation of unconventional hydrocarbons such as shale gas and oil shale or offshore exploitation. This choice risks leading the country down a dangerous path. Fracking, used to exploit shale gas, or pyrolysis, to exploit oil shale, pose a real threat to water resources and public health,” warns Mohamed Benata, president of the ESCO.
A public document makes no secret of the government’s desire to exploit this controversial resource. The report explains the government’s strategy and action plan in this respect, such as “the opening of new onshore shale gas exploration zones”.
Environmental defenders in Morocco are untiringly brandishing the numerous international scientific and official reports about the inherent risks of shale gas exploitation, in a bid to counter the plan.
As highlighted in a French National Assembly report, published in 2011, this activity triggers disputes over water, used on a massive scale in such operations, leads to changes in landscapes, alters ecosystems and creates the risk of collateral damage to ground water as a result of the underground explosions prior to fracking, gives rise to biodiversity loss and the problems linked to the dozens of tonnes of chemical additives that cannot be brought back up to the surface at the end of the exploitation phase.
Awareness raising events have been held within the Moroccan parliament to convey this message and to convince the country’s political representatives to pass a moratorium on shale gas.
The public authorities and Sound Energy have responded to the offensive waged by national and local NGOs by trying to reassure the population that no licence has been given for fracking operations or non-conventional gas prospection. The heads of the company visited Maâtarka in February to present the prospecting project underway and to dissipate the fears expressed by local associations and representatives.
Luca Madeddu, managing director of Sound Energy Morocco, told Equal Times that the Grand Tendrara gas exploration permit only covers conventional gas exploitation and that the company is operating in compliance with all the country’s environmental standards.
“Despite these promises, we remain on the alert and ready to mobilise against any attempt to explore for shale gas in our region,” warns Benata, president of the ESCO.
Shale gas or not, NGOs and the local population fear the consequences of any form of exploitation on the already rare water resources and the problem of waste management.
“We remain extremely vigilant with regard to these two points. Water is a scarce resource in the region, we will not allow it to be polluted,” warns Touil.
Pending the announcement of possible discoveries, Sound Energy is pledging to implement an emergency programme to assist this derelict region. But there is one snag: this assistance depends on the confirmation of discoveries. Sound Energy plans to make an announcement regarding the region’s gas potential by the end of 2018. If the results are positive, the company will launch exploitation operations at the end of 2019.
Eastern Morocco is in no rush. It has already been waiting for nearly 60 years.
This story has been translated from French.