Claims that the war in Darfur is intimately linked to vast untapped oil reserves have been made ever since the conflict began and are revived in The Scramble for Africa, where Steven Fake and Kevin Funk repeat a series of assertions that, as far as is known in the often secretive world of oil exploration, have no basis in fact. Thus far, all efforts to find oil in Darfur have failed in the almost 30 years since Chevron discovered the small and declining Abu Gabra and Sharaf fields that border Kordofan.
Unlike in southern Sudan, where the war for oil was terrible, the massive displacement in Darfur was not caused by the presence, or even hopes, of oil; it was caused by a vicious counter-insurgency to quash a rebellion, including by the regime’s Islamist rivals in the Justice and Equality Movement, that seemed to be threatening to take control of the whole region. If oil reserves are ever found in significant quantities in Darfur, they could become a source of contention. On present evidence, however, that seems unlikely. Most of central and western Darfur consists of non-sedimentary rock, which will not contain any oil deposits. Experts concur that the region has only two areas where there could be serious finds—southern Darfur, bordering Kordofan and Bahr el-Ghazal, and the very north-western corner bordering Libya.
Slowly-expanding new exploration in both areas has caused intermittent, and apparently very limited, local conflict, but so far has yielded nothing of commercial interest.
Although important discoveries have been claimed since the war in Darfur began—including by the Ministry of Energy and Mining, which often exaggerates its success—the claims have been vague, significantly lacking in detail, and, in the single most important instance, incorrect.
The most productive field in Darfur is Block 6, where Chevron first found oil in 1979. This concession straddles Kordofan and South Darfur and was awarded to Sudan’s most important oil partner, the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), in November 1995. Early in the conflict in Darfur, CNPC relinguished most of the part of Block 6 that was inside Darfur to a group of small companies. Now called Block 17, there have not been any reports about activities there. The operator, Ansan, is a small Yemeni company with no track record in the upstream. (For a map of oil concessions, including in Darfur, see this map produced by the European Coalition on Oil in Sudan.)
The Darfur production in Block 6 is Abu Gabra, which is situated just inside Darfur and has been attacked several times by rebels, without lasting effect. Alleged production figures from the field vary from 20,000 to 60,000 b/d. CNPC has built a pipeline from the Fula field in Block 6, in the middle of Southern Kordofan, to Khartoum. The Abu Gabra oil is trucked out to Fula, which produces approximately 45,000 b/d. A small refinery at Abu Gabra, built before CNPC arrived, with a 2,000 b/d capacity, has been closed by CNPC. It produced mainly diesel.
In April 2005, Energy Minister Awad al-Jaz grabbed headlines by announcing discovery of a giant oilfield in southern Darfur that he said was expected to produce 500,000 b/d within months. The reported find was in Block C, a concession granted to a consortium called the Advanced Petroleum Company (APCO). APCO had started drilling late in 2004 and soon after claimed that its exploratory well had ‘oil in place’. But announcements of success were premature and proved illusory: the oil discovered was in insignificant, noncommercial quantities, and the well was soon reassessed as dry. Cliveden Petroleum, the largest partner in the original consortium, sold its share to High Tech, one of Sudan’s largest conglomerates that is controlled by a former Energy and Mining Minister, Abdel Aziz Osman. APCO stopped all activity and hasn’t resumed since.
This ‘discovery’ provoked considerable confusion and a surge of new reports linking the Darfur war to oil. On 16 April, UPI correctly reported the find as being in ‘southern Darfur’. On 19 April, Reuters said the discovery was ‘southwest of El Fasher in North Darfur State’. This sentence was problematic—although El Fasher is in North Darfur, the discovery was in South Darfur. In September 2006, citing the 2005 Reuters report, Tomdispatch, an armchair blog with a tendency to ascribe US foreign policy to oil and oil alone, said a discovery in North Darfur (the italics are mine) had ‘effectively doubled Sudan’s oil reserves’. The blog continues to be widely circulated on the internet. Fake and Funk cite it as evidence that ‘Darfur, along with Kordofan, “may be the areas richest in oil in the entire country.”’
But the South Darfur find trumpeted in 2005 was a bust, and there have been no lucky strikes in North Darfur. Industry sources say that one of the companies that bought drilling rights to 125,000 square miles of the North Darfur desert—Block 12A— in November 2006 has reportedly had good seismic results. But it would be premature to claim even the possibility of oil wealth there: seismics identify potential; they do not find oil.