Divining the source of Niger Delta oil
“Our Lecture this quarter, deals with ‘Petroleum’. So we’re holding it in the Niger Delta—to mark the anniversary of Nigeria’s hydrocarbon industry”.
Tomori, president of the Nigerian Academy of Science (NAS), had invited me to sit with him; and I was being regaled with a preview of NAS’s Public Lecture.
“But even without the anniversary factor,” he continued, as we pulled under the portico, at the Vice Chancellor’s office, “this would obviously be the right place to talk, with all the political issues in the air”.
As it turned out though, the issues addressed in the Lecture itself—entitled “Source Rock and Sorcerers: Decoding The Origin of the Niger Delta Petroleum”—would be more academic than political.
True enough, the battle-lines A. Chidi Ibe, Professor of Oceanography, at the University of Port Harcourt, delineated were sharply defined and the factional friction intense.
Still, militants have no cause for concern. The friction is over the source—not the ownership—of the region’s oil. The weapons are well-samples and mathematical models, rather than machine guns.
Ibe is a much-decorated veteran, of this war-of-minds. The Old Warrior has “crisscrossed the world,” as he put it, for the United Nations and has been a Guest Lecturer in China, India and Ukraine.
Filing into the V.C.’s sedate chambers with Ibe, to pay a courtesy call on Professor Akii Ibhadode, were other veterans of other wars—wearing green silken robes, with black, yellow-tasseled berets.
Quite a number of these “Fellows” have, since the inception of NAS in 1977, recounted similar hard-fought campaigns and rendered their own unique insights into complex problems and issues.
Those who haven’t, will do so, sooner or later: Because it’s a NAS tradition. But this was Ibe’s Book; and he would be the central character.A vocal ensemble, featuring Judith Umokoro as lead singer, set the stage with a spirited rendition of the FUPRE anthem—a symbolic expression of the University’s quest for identity.
The anthem heralded two “Welcome Addresses,” starting with Ibhadode’s salutations to dignitaries and traditional rulers—including Sideso Abe I, Ovie of Uvwie and an emissary from the Orodje of Okpe.
General Esio Orho Obada (retired) had feted the visiting Fellows, at his Farm House in Agbarho (near Warri), the night before—for which Ibhadode (himself a Fellow) expressed gratitude.
He also apprised the audience, of a second ceremonial event on that day: When Tomori and his Academy of Sages paid a Courtesy call on the Ovie of Uvwie. Formalities done, the V.C. got down to business. This was the first lecture of its kind, at FUPRE, he allowed, as well as a seminal event in the history of the institution—due to the elite status of NAS.
Ibhadode reminded a full house of students, lecturers, visiting V.C.s, collaborators and donors that the Academy consisted of only 161 Fellows, despite the large number of universities in the country.
“We need to have Fellows from this institution,” he continued. “That is what we’re pushing for. By coming here, you are sowing the seeds of knowledge in this environment and at this university”.
Ibhadode narrated the Federal University of Petroleum Resources dates back to 2007 and now has two Colleges (‘Science” and “Technology”), with a third (“Management”) coming on stream in a year.
What the V.C. didn’t say though, is that FUPRE is something of a debutant and the Lecture was a coming-out party, to raise its public profile—vis-à-vis neighboring, Petroleum Training Institute (P.T.I.).
(This political chore was left for Morrison Ichendu, the Registrar, to perform, much farther down the line—in his Vote of Thanks.“When you mention the Federal University of Petroleum Resources,” he would lament, “people always ask if you’re referring to ‘P.T.I.’”We welcomed the challenge of holding the NAS Public Lecture at FUPRE, Ichendu would further assert, “as a means of attaining visibility”.)
Meanwhile, Professor Oyewale Tomori, the Academy’s outgoing president (who followed Ibhadode) proclaimed his presence a “homecoming,” .Scanning the audience, he conjectured that “When I first came here many of you were not born. I was…a student at Federal Government College, Ughelli in 1958—before Nigerian independence”.
Tomori is now a globally renowned epidemiologist and a collaborator with the World Health Organization, in its effort to help hold infectious diseases, such as Ebola and Lassa fever, in check.
“But whatever I am today,” he declared, “I know what my education at Ughelli, in those days, did in my life”.
The outspoken scholar revealed that he had finished primary and secondary school and the university “without going out of Nigeria” and obtained “the best education,” on “scholarship throughout”.
Said he, “Nigeria had no oil money then. So what has happened to us? I think we need to begin to talk. This is one area, in which we, the educated people, have an important role to play”.
Tomori conveyed with fervency, his wish that some of the science students sitting, would one day occupy the positions visiting Fellows hold today.They should aspire to become Fellows, he urged, because “the Academy must grow. And that growth can only come from the young people I’m looking at here”.
His generation of Fellows will soon depart, he counseled “and we can’t leave a vacancy or a vacuum. So you must come in and join us, in doing what we are doing”.
The Academy leader conceded, that a lot of people don’t really know what the institution does—which is one reason the Fellows came to FUPRE.He explained that NAS provides advice to Government in the formulation of science policy and the execution of projects. But its assessments are based on evidence, instead of emotion.
In yielding to Ibe, Tomori—known for wit and humour—took a tongue-in-cheek swipe at the Emma Cultural Troupe, from Ekpan, whose vibrant Uhrobo folk-dance preceded his address.
“My only complaint about this programme,” he quipped, “is that when the dancers came out, they faced the Royal Fathers and turned their backsides to us”!
Ibe, on his part, raised more serious issues—delving into the once-searing debate, over whether the oil and gas beneath Earth’s surface is of biological (“organic”) or non-biological (inorganic) in origin.
In his “Prologue,” Ibe plunged headlong into the mainstream of Western science, which traditionally has looked askance at the inorganic hypothesis of Russian geologists.
“I wish to state unequivocally” he declared, “that this paper is anchored squarely on the organic theory of the origin of petroleum”.But this proved to be a mere practice run, for what was to come, an acclimatizing dip into the swirling waters of petroleum controversy.
Ibe invested most of his mental energy, navigating the turbid streams of Niger Delta geology—which, it quickly became apparent, are as turbulent and treacherous as the region’s politics.
Oddly though, the scholar who first appeared cloaked in conservative garb—presenting himself as a defender of the established organic order—now dawned a different identity.
Ibe, in fact, became his opposite: Emerging as an intellectual insurgent who takes on the powers that be, in petroleum geology, and ultimately prevails. Oil exploration, he notes, is essentially the search for “exploitable accumulations” of petroleum, trapped in source rocks.
The “Sorcerers” in the title of his talk, are the geologists, geochemists, chemical engineers and other experts who hunt for the hallowed hydrocarbons, hidden in these subterranean sediments.
Hence Ibe avers, emphatically, that the appellation has “everything to do with the ‘Source rocks’ that generate the petroleum and the ‘Sorcerers’ who find it”.
An abiding belief of the Sorcerers—their mantra, you might say—is: “If you know how it originates, you know where to find it” Petroleum originates in rock, usually deep underground, where certain sustained conditions—such as temperature, pressure and the presence of organic matter—generate hydrocarbon compounds.
Chemical reactions in these source rock, tend to expel oil and gas, triggering what geologists term a “migration” into sandstone or other porous sediments, which serve as “reservoirs”.
A centrally important issue, in the factional row, which raged during the 1970s and -80s, was the particular type of source rock the Niger Delta’s oil and gas comes from and where they are located.
This was actually part of a broader, global conflagration: Pitting proponents of shale formations as the sole petroleum source against agitators for including carbonate and sandstone basins.
In the late 1970s, serendipity combined with bureaucratic drag, to cast Ibe into the fray—when the Petroleum Technology Development Fund tardily announced its scholarship awards.
He informed the Royal School of Mines, at London’s Imperial College of Science and Technology, that his arrival to begin studies of “The Mobility of Cations In Fine Grained Sediments,” would be delayed.
Then, just prior to departure, Ibe got a letter from the College, changing his research programme and committing him irrevocably the source-rock insurgency.
His alternative project, turned out to be “the enigma of the source of the petroleum found in prolific carbonate basins…but which do not conform to the conventional wisdom…”
The “conventional wisdom,” as Ibe related it, was “that shales are exclusively source rocks while sandstones and carbonates are reservoir rocks”.His investigations of carbonate environments, for a degree in Organic Geochemistry, were global in scope—carrying him to the U.S.A., the Persian Gulf and the Bahama Islands.
But at the College of Science and Technology, Ibe interacted two other Nigerians—Dan Lambert-Aikhionbare and Francis Fatona. They had similar research interests, and the three discussed continually.
“During the many weekend gatherings…,” he recalls, “we spent much time musing over the origin of the Niger Delta petroleum”.Aikhionbare, in particular (who was seated in the front row) would become a loyal intellectual ally—a cohort in the source-rock insurgency—with whom Ibe would co-author a seminal paper.
At the core of the controversy, was the geology and geochemistry of the Niger Delta, which, in structural terms, is divided into three distinct rock formations—or “rock groups,” as Ibe prefers.
These structures are designated as “Akata,” “Agbada” and “Benin”. Together, they form a three-layered, Delta-wide structure, with Akata shales at the bottom and Benin sand and sandstone on top.
Wedged between them, is the 3700 to 4000 meter thick Agbada facies (“facies” being any distinctive rock system), comprised of alternating sub-layers of shales and sandstone.
Since the Akata facies is mainly marine shale (compacted clay, deposited by ancient rivers), “conventional wisdom” assumed it to be the exclusive source-rock for the region’s hydrocarbon.
Defying convention, Ibe and Aikhionbare demurred, insisting, in a 1984 paper, that Agbada shales were the real source of Niger Delta petroleum, with contiguous sandstone serving as reservoir rocks.
“If Akata shales were indeed the source,” Ibe asserted, recapitulating, “the Niger Delta petroleum would be [predominantly] heavy crude with high Sulphur content…This is not the case”.
Towards the end of his nearly two-hour talk, the “Accidental Geochemist” (as Ibe had earlier described himself), molted once more: Changing his persona, from “Sorcerer” to “Sage”.
Yet the instinct of the insurgent, the impulse to overturn convention, was evident, even in this final transfiguration—in which he urged the Federal Government to “rethink” its exploration strategy.
Much to the surprise of listeners (who remained responsive), Ibe noted that, in geological terms, the “Niger Delta” consisted of three petroleum systems: And that they extended beyond Nigeria’s borders.
He enumerated these as the Lower Cretaceous (Lacustrine), Upper Cretaceous-Paleocene (marine) and Tertiary (deltaic) regimes—the first two being “unexplored and untapped”.
Not only that, he continued, but “there are great petroleum potentialities afforded by the Anambra Basin, the Benue Trough, the Bida Basin and, yes, the Borno-Chad Basin”.
Buttressing his authority, Ibe recalled that, as Guest Lecturer, he had told the Nigerian Association of Petroleum Explorationists (NAPE), in 1987, that there was oil in Anambra—which is now producing.
He predicted as well (in the same lecture), that petroleum could also be extracted from rock underlying countries to the east and west of Nigeria.“Those who were at that NAPE meeting in 1987,” he recounted, with visible self-satisfaction, “still call me ‘Sorcerer’!”