Demonstrations over the weekend prompted the British-based multinational Tullow Oil to suspend drilling on two exploration blocks in Kenya. The country is a newcomer to large-scale oil and mineral industries, and the protests likely reflect a disconnect between the soaring hopes of the local population and the long, slow windup to actual extraction.
“You can see in these protests that people want jobs now and there might be a disconnect between the needs in [the] Turkana [region] and the pace of this – and the hype by Tullow Oil in exaggerating how quickly they can start producing oil,” says one of our correspondents in Nairobi.
The company has said that 860 of its 1,400 workers in the exploration area are locals. Jobs still number only in the hundreds because the process is still in the exploratory stage. The government hasn’t yet approved an environmental impact assessment and a general feasibility study, let alone an actual mining contract where the company would make firm commitments for local development and jobs.
But people in the sparsely populated Turkana region of northwest Kenya have suddenly found themselves at the center of international attention twice in recent months. In July, Tullow estimated that the region’s Lokichar Basin held 300 million barrels of crude oil, according to Reuters. In September, scientists found an underground lake the size of Delaware thought to hold billions of gallons of precious water.
Kenyans do not have a lot of experience with sudden natural resource windfalls, so it’s unknown how well the government will spread the benefits and avoid local unrest.
“Kenya is brand new to mining and oil. Major oil discoveries came just last year, and there are very few mines operating now. There’s a large mine opening in Kwale, along the coast, this year by an Australian company that will be a substantial test of Kenya’s ability to collect revenues and disburse them. It’s really too early to tell how well Kenya is going to spread the wealth,” says our correspondent.