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Tunisia-Libya Borderline: Huge Oil and Gas Reserves or Another Media Sensation?

Mohamed Aymen Mohamed Aymen
6th April 2023
Tunisia-Libya Borderline: Huge Oil and Gas Reserves or Another Media Sensation?
The recent alleged oil discovery spread optimism in Tunisia (Getty)

The public debate about supposedly small hydrocarbons reserves in Tunisia, while neighboring two big oil and gas producers, keeps on waxing and waning since 2011. The latest wave being the Tunisian president questioning the sharing of hydrocarbons between Tunisia and Libya, to be followed by News released by Libyan media on March 25 about the potential discovery of offshore large oil and gas between the two countries. This news created controversy in Tunisia and, at the same time, a wave of optimism, considering this new alleged discovery could contribute to boost Tunisia’s fragile economy.

Tunisian President: “Tunisia Only Got a Few Scraps Form the Bouri Oil Reservoir”

Four days before March 20, Tunisian Independence Day, President Kais Saied visited the headquarters of the Tunisian company for petroleum Activities (ETAP) where he discussed the issue of the Bouri oil reservoir located near Tunisian and Libyan coasts. Saied mentioned that Tunisia “only got a few scraps” and contested the International Court of Justice’s decision that ruled in favor of Libya in 1982 and delimited the continental shelves of the two countries.

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Photo Description: The Tunisian President pointing at the Libyan-Tunisian Joint Oil block (Presidency of the Republic)

The debate about the delimitation of maritime borders between the two neighboring countries started since 1966 following the preliminary discovery of offshore hydrocarbons reserves between the two countries and did not reach palpable outcome. In 1974, Former Libyan Foreign Minister Ali Abdessalem Treki suggested that Bouri oil field, recently discovered, would be split in half between the two countries. However, this proposal was rejected by Tunisia in a context of diplomatic tensions upon the failure of the project of the unification of the two countries a year before. Two years later, Italian company AGIP Oil estimated that Bouri reservoir contains 4.5 billion barrels (720,000,000 m3) in proven recoverable crude oil reserves and 3.5 trillion cubic feet (99 km3) of associated natural gas with an annual production potential of 6 billion m³.

In 1977, the memorial of Tunisia to the ICJ states that, following conversations held between Libyan and Tunisian authorities, The former called in U.S. company Reading and Bates which drill platform, named J.W.Bures and under the Panamanian flag, entered the Tunisian continental shelf on Friday 27 May escorted by three Libyan naval units including a submarine. Amid the increasing diplomatic tensions and following a mediation of former Secretary-General of the League of Arab States, Mahmoud Riyad, the two parties agreed in 1977 to have recourse to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The court ruled in favor of the Libyan state and its partner Italian ENI, and the appeal made by Tunisian side was also rejected in 1985.

In reaction to Saied’s statement, Libyan Oil Minister Mohamed Aoun declared that the Tunisian president had misinterpreted the international court ruling from 1982, while adding that the two countries had agreed to abide by the terms of the ruling, with Bouri field held by Libya. A similar statement was issued by the Eastern Libyan House of Representatives, its Head of energy Committee Issa al-Oraibi rejecting the idea of giving up Libyan resources. Nonetheless, it’s interesting to note that Aoun considered that Saied instead meant the continental shelf in which the two countries enjoy a partnership. The Libyan Oil Minister added that the two countries had established a company to exploit the oil and gas resources of the shelf under the name "Joint Oil" in 1988, as indicated in the map here below, but it has not started working since.

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Photo Description: Location of the Joint Oil field (Energypedia)

The Bouri oil reservoir NC-41, part of the Pelagian Basin, is considered to be the biggest of its kind in the Mediterranean region and the 4th biggest sea reserve in Africa. It contains one oil reservoir and two gas reservoirs. The exploitation of the field, consisting of 38 wells, started in 1988 by Libya’s National Oil Company and Italy’s ENI. While it peaked at 150,000 barrels of oil per day (bopd) in 1995, it dropped to 23,500 bopd in March 2023. It is expected to continue until the field reaches its economic limit by 2034 according to Offshore Technology as indicated in the graph here below.

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Photo Description: Evolution of Bouri oil field production (Offshore Technology)

In 2015, ENI discovered two new wells containing natural gas and condensate oil in the Bouri field. The first one, discovered in March, has the capacity to produce 29 million standard cubic feet per day (MMscfd) and 600 bopd of condensate oil. The second one, discovered two months later, can flow more than 3,000 bopd when configured for production. An expansion project, namely Bouri Gas Utilisation Project (BGUP) is in the feed stage and expected to start in 2023 according to the same source, while Libyan National Oil Company is preparing for 2024 oil and gas licensing. It is worth mentioning that this comes in a context where the European Union is diversifying its gas imports to reduce its dependency from Russian gas in the midst of the war in Ukraine and Italy reviving old dreams of becoming a gas hub for Europe.

The Discovery of Large Oil and Gas Reserves Between Tunisia and Libya 

On March 25, news about a United States Geological Survey (USGS) report and the discovery of large oil and gas fields between Tunisia and Libya started circulating in Libyan media, to be followed by Tunisian, Azerbaijani and Maltese ones. The circulating news stressed that Libyan oil and gas reserves could double because of the discovery, while Tunisia could become a major energy producer in North Africa.

The exploitation of offshore oil fields can make Tunisia self-sufficient in terms of energy, removing the heavy weight of oil imports that had a big impact on its trade balance for decades. Indeed, Tunisia suffers from a high energy deficit as it records a yearly decrease in energy independence according to data recently issued by the Tunisian company for petroleum Activities (ETAP). Nonetheless, two questions must be asked: what does the USGS report say and when was it published?

USGS Report, A Game Changer or a Pointless Fuss?

The U.S. Geological Survey has indeed undertaken a study of the World Petroleum Assessment in 2001 to “assess the quantities of conventional oil, natural gas, and natural gas liquids outside the United States that have the potential to be added to reserves in the next 30 years.” This study includes research focused on the central Mediterranean, the area bordered by western Libya, Eastern Tunisia, Malta and Southern Sicily (Italy).

The first study, as well as the updates published respectively in 2010 and 2019, indeed show the existence of oil and gas in the area named by the research “The Pelagian Basin NC41,” an area of approximatively 294,000 km2. This basin includes the Bou Dabbous area that is the subject of the articles that emerged in Libyan news.

The 2010 update of the original study shows that the Bou Dabbous area (surrounded by a dashed line in the map) comprises on average 305 million barrels of oil (MMBO), 131 billion cubic feet of gas (BCFG) in addition to 4 million barrels of natural gas liquids (MMBNGL). At the same time, the 2019 update shows that the Bou Dabbous area comprises on average 61 oil fields and 82 gas fields which comprises on average 12,8 MMBO and 109.2 BCFG.

At the same time, Dr. Habib Troudi, Doctor in Geology and consultant to the Tunisian Company for Petroleum Activities (ETAP) also confirmed in an interview with Tunisian Radio Mosaïque FM that the USGS study published by Libyan media in March 2023 goes back to before 2010. However, Dr. Troudi considered this study to be “superficial” and “unreliable” since the figures it presents are based on geological exploration and are not sufficient to provide precise information on the existence of potential oil and gas reserves. He also claimed that the study in question cannot serve as a scientific reference because it is only based on a geological analysis and requires a seismic analysis to get a clearer picture.

Where is The Oil?

This was the question asked by several Tunisians who – logically – are wondering why their country did not have considerable hydrocarbon resources while it was surrounded by two big oil and gas producers, namely Algeria and Libya. The Oil industry veteran John Nelson already questioned in 2013 whether Tunisia, considered to be a minor producer and relatively underexplored venue in Africa’s rapidly expanding oil and gas scene, should be on energy investors watch list.

At the same time, the lack of transparency and clear communication of Tunisian state about the management of its – supposedly – small hydrocarbon resources did not help to provide an answer to these questions. Strikes, sit-ins and blockades have already multiplied since 2012, a year after the ousting of Former president Ben Ali, in the pastoral lands bordering the cities of Douz and El Faouar (South-western Tunisia) where oil and gas companies are operating. These local protests grew nationwide in the aftermath of December 2014 presidential and parliamentary elections to the social media campaign “Winou el Pétrole?” Tunisian for: “Where is the oil?)”. The campaign called for greater transparency and fairer distribution of the national hydrocarbon resources. Nonetheless, this online social movement grew big to become protests that resulted in the blocking of an oil and gas facility at Kamour in Tunisia’s southern governorate of Tataouine in 2017 and 2020. 

To be sure, the potential existence of large oil and gas resources continues to fuel fantasies in Tunisia, especially during these last years during which the country is facing economic hardship. The map below gives an idea about the areas where potential undiscovered oil and gas reserves can be found.

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Photo Description: Undiscovered Conventional Oil and Gas Resources of North Africa, 2012 (USGS Assessment)

These oil and gas reserves, with a total mean of 19 billion barrels of technically recoverable undiscovered conventional oil, of which 41 % would go to Morocco, 19 % to Libya and 10 % in Berkine reservoir near Algerian-Tunisian southern border (Trias/Ghadames basin). The assessment study also talks about 370 trillion cubic feet of undiscovered conventional natural gas resources, of which 59 % would go to Egypt, 12 % to Morocco and 6 % to Libya.

Hydrocarbons, a Blessing, or a Curse?

Besides of the USGS study,Algerian media also confirmed that Berkine basin, known for its oil wealth, will become in the short and medium term as a new gas province, like that of the south-west, with the discovery in recent years of several gas condensate structures and the finding that this region contains large quantities of associated non-conventional gas, commonly known as shale gas. Nonetheless, the exploitation of shale gas remains controversial due to its environmental impact, including on water resources. A study published in 2016 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that hydraulic fracturing used to extract shale gas, also known as fracking techniques, leads to the contamination of drinking water by gas. Furthermore, each fracking requires on average 14 to 27 million liters of water per well.

Even though the European Union needs for North African gas are increasing as it is reducing its dependence on Russian gas, it has committed to a green energy transition and decarbonization, aiming to achieve climate neutrality by 2050. BP estimates revealed that European gas requirements in 2030 could decrease by 30 and 50% compared to 2019. This means that investments in exploration and development infrastructure of hydrocarbons may not be cost-effective in the long run, especially given the time required to put it in place, contrary to renewable energy. Furthermore, while certainly being a blessing for any country to boost its economy, oil and gas may also become a curse. History provides several examples of how several oil and gas rich countries in the MENA region were laid to the ground and became fields of geopolitical competition.

Misbar’s Sources:

Tunisian Presidency Facebook page

International Court of Justice

Libya Observer

Al Marsad (Libya)

Offshore Technology

Oil and gas Journal

United States Geological Survey

Mosaïque FM

USGS Assessment: Undiscovered Conventional Oil and Gas Resources of North Africa, 2012