Natural Gas from Senegal: European Casts Covetous Eyes toward West Africa. Source: Spiegel International

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Natural Gas from Senegal: European Casts Covetous Eyes toward West Africa

Karmol LNGT Powership Africa is to soon begin supplying natural gas to two floating powerplants off Dakar.

Karmol LNGT Powership Africa is to soon begin supplying natural gas to two floating powerplants off Dakar. Foto: [M] Carmen Abd Ali / Inland / DER SPIEGEL

Natural Gas from Senegal European Casts Covetous Eyes toward West Africa

Until recently, Europe had been urging Africa to focus on the development of renewable energy sources. But a natural gas project in Senegal suddenly has Germany, France, Italy and others flocking to the country hoping for a new supplier.

By Heiner Hoffmann und Carmen Abd Ali (Photos) in Saint Louis, Senegal • 11.11.2022, 17.01 Uhr

A large wave spills over the gunwales of the wooden pirogue and everything in the bottom of the boat begins floating around in the swirling water. Another wave hits the boat a short time later, its keel rising two meters before plunging into the trough, hitting the surface hard.

Moustapha Dieng leans placidly on a plank of wood, amused by the pale faces of the DER SPIEGEL team onboard with him. Dieng is wearing a black wool cap, his shaggy beard has long since become peppered with gray and he is missing several teeth. In the coastal village of Guet Ndar, essentially an extension of Saint Louis, a city in northern Senegal, they call him “father.” Dieng is head of the powerful association of traditional fishermen in Senegal. He knows everybody here, and everybody knows him.

A pirogue is brought to the water on the beach of Guet Ndar, the beachside fishing community that is part of Saint Louis.

A pirogue is brought to the water on the beach of Guet Ndar, the beachside fishing community that is part of Saint Louis. Foto: Carmen Abd Ali / Inland / DER SPIEGEL

Moustapha Dieng is head of the fishing association in Saint Louise and is demanding compensation from the natural gas consortium.

Moustapha Dieng is head of the fishing association in Saint Louise and is demanding compensation from the natural gas consortium. Foto: Carmen Abd Ali / Inland / DER SPIEGEL

Moustapha Dieng is the face of the resistance against BP and its partners.

Moustapha Dieng is the face of the resistance against BP and its partners. Foto: Carmen Abd Ali / Inland / DER SPIEGEL

Dieng laughs frequently, and even when he’s not laughing, he has a whimsical smirk on his face. He has fought many battles in his life – against storms and tides and against the foreign trawlers that spent many years depleting the fishing stocks off the coast of Senegal. But never before has he had such a powerful adversary as he does today. He has declared war on one of the world’s largest oil and natural gas companies. The man in the wooden pirogue is outraged at the vast monster of steel and concrete he is currently approaching: Starting next year, a consortium led by BP is to begin extracting natural gas here on the border between Senegal and Mauretania, and much of the facility is already complete.

The natural gas platform can be seen on the horizon. Fishermen aren't allowed any closer.

The natural gas platform can be seen on the horizon. Fishermen aren’t allowed any closer. Foto: Carmen Abd Ali / Inland / DER SPIEGEL

In 2014, a vast repository of the fossil fuel was found beneath the seabed, and since then, the two countries have been working together to exploit it, hoping for multibillion-dollar revenues. Extraction is planned to continue for 30 years, with the profits being divided up between the energy giants BP and Kosmos, and between the governments of Senegal and Mauritania. Global Societies

For our Global Societies project, reporters around the world will be writing about societal problems, sustainability and development in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe. The series will include features, analyses, photo essays, videos and podcasts looking behind the curtain of globalization. The project is generously funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. All Articles

“Well look what we have here,” says Moustapha Dieng, pointing first to the left, at a large, gray ship belonging to the Senegalese coastal patrol, and then to the right, where a similar ship belonging to Mauritania is anchored. “If we keep going, they’ll probably arrest us.” Even if there is no buoy or any other marking, this is where the exclusion zone begins around the Greater Tortue Ahmeyim (GTA) gas platform, 500 meters in every direction. An invisible wall. “But that is precisely where we have always caught the most fish,” Dieng says in anger. He hopes to at least secure financial compensation for the presumed shortfalls.

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The British company BP declined to provide anyone for an interview and has thus far failed to response to a written query from DER SPIEGEL. The Senegalese state-owned oil and gas company Petrosen proved a bit more communicative. For our interview, General Director Thierno Seydou Ly has chosen a luxurious, five-star hotel in the capital of Dakar with a view of the Atlantic Ocean. In a conference room in the hotel, executives are planning the next expansion of the Saint Louis project, assuming enough investors can be found.

Replacing Russia

“Natural gas is an immense opportunity for our country,” says Ly, “also because the demand for new producers is huge due to the war in Ukraine.” Senegal, in other words, is trying to quickly catapult itself into the ranks of gas-producing nations. Processes that normally take years must be completed within just a few months in order to meet European demand as rapidly as possible and to profit from the high global prices. “At the moment,” Ly laughs, “everybody is knocking on our door.”

Thierno Seydou Ly is the general director of the state-owned oil and gas company Petrosen.

Thierno Seydou Ly is the general director of the state-owned oil and gas company Petrosen. Foto: Carmen Abd Ali / Inland / DER SPIEGEL

One of those is German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who was in Senegal in May. It was a notable visit, a “turning point” in German energy policy, as Scholz noted himself in the subsequent press conference. It is sensible, he said, to “intensely pursue” cooperation in gas exploitation. Berlin is currently under pressure to quickly find alternatives to Russian natural gas, and the West African country is more than happy to jump into the breach.

Germany, though, had been intending to halt all further investments in fossil fuel repositories. Indeed, the issue is so sensitive that the German side has shown reluctance to discuss the cooperation. Petrosen General Director Ly, though, has no such constraints. He says that concrete negotiations have begun with the German energy supplier Uniper, even if Uniper headquarters has thus far not responded to a DER SPIEGEL request for comment. But Ly also makes it clear that those hoping for preferential treatment are expected to invest money in Senegal.

Either way, the German government does not have an endless amount of time on its hands. President Macky Sall and his cabinet are currently the focus of fawning attention from a number of European countries, including France, Portugal, Poland and Italy – all of which are eager to secure natural gas from Senegal, even if it isn’t yet available for export. It is a rather welcome change for a country that has long requested funding from the aid budgets of countries in the Global North. The Senegalese government has realized that now is the time to get the absolute most out of the natural gas reserve. Now or never.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz visited Senegal's President Macky Sall in May.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz visited Senegal’s President Macky Sall in May. Foto: Michael Kappeler / dpa

The mood marks a significant shift from last year, when European governments were singing the praises of the potential in Africa for renewable energies and warning against the exploitation of oil and gas. Macky Sall consistently resisted such sentiments. At the UN General Assembly in New York in September, he said: “It is legitimate, fair and equitable that Africa, the continent that pollutes the least and lags furthest behind in the industrialization process, should exploit its available resources.” Now, those from the north who had presumed to lecture Africa are lining up and waiting for the Senegalese natural gas spigots to be turned on.

Ly, the Petrosen general director, is unimpressed by the criticisms leveled by the fishing community of Saint Louis. “The anger of those affected is primarily a communications problem,” he says, claiming that “there were never fishing grounds where the gas platform now stands.”

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When DER SPIEGEL tells Moustapha Dieng in Saint Louis about Ly’s claims, he breaks into laughter. He then turns to a fellow fisherman on his right. “Did you hear that?” he asks. “They lie so brazenly! It can’t continue!”

Fishing in Saint Louis is more than just a source of income. It dictates daily life in the city, its culture and communities. Almost every family in town lives from the sea, either directly or indirectly, and the fishery is one of the most bountiful in the world. No wonder, then, that the empty nets recently have become a dominant theme of discussion.

Carmen Abd Ali / Inland / DER SPIEGEL

Their anger is directed at the Senegalese government and at the oil and gas multinational BP. It is difficult to say whether the disappearance of the fish can really be traced back to the gas platform. After all, Chinese trawlers, disguised as Senegalese boats, have been snapping up the fish and climate change is also making itself felt here, altering the ecosystem. But for the fishing community in Saint Louis, it is clear: The vast platform out at sea is to blame.

The fishing community is blaming the natural gas platform for reduced catches.

The fishing community is blaming the natural gas platform for reduced catches. Foto: Carmen Abd Ali / Inland / DER SPIEGEL

It is the afternoon of October 22, and the regional governor has invited stakeholders for a conference: BP, Petrosen, ministries and experts. The focus of the conference is the issue everyone is talking about: “The sustainable development of Saint Louis in the context of natural gas exploitation.”

“A Huge Opportunity for the Region”

Land Cruisers with tinted windows roll up to the conference hotel, spilling out women and men in uniform or in traditional suits. They enter the packed room searching for their assigned seat at the U-shaped table. Massaer Cissé, the top BP executive in Senegal, holds an impassioned presentation about the advantages of natural gas exploitation, saying things like: “Natural resources belong to the Senegalese people and not to BP.” And: “I am extremely fond of this area.” And: “Fishing and gas are not mutually exclusive, they complement each other wonderfully.” His presentation ends with an uplifting video complete with background music in which residents of Saint Louis gush about the good deeds performed by the oil and gas multinational.

Fish or gas? The debate also hinges on the region's culture.

Fish or gas? The debate also hinges on the region’s culture. Foto: Carmen Abd Ali / Inland / DER SPIEGEL

A street scene in Saint-Louis

A street scene in Saint-Louis Foto: Carmen Abd Ali / Inland / DER SPIEGEL

The governor, in full military dress, looks satisfied. “The gas is a huge opportunity for the region. It will enable us to solve all of our problems,” he intones. There is, though, a notable absence at the conference table: the fishing community. “Nobody invited me,” says Moustapha Dieng, the chairman of the fishing association. “Probably because I’m always too loud.”

BP and the other project partners have taken steps to calm tempers. They have distributed free lifejackets, handed out food during the coronavirus pandemic and made state-of-the-art projectors available to local organizations. But the resentment has persisted. In part because the divvying up of the gas fields early on was overshadowed by allegations of corruption. Concern in the country is significant that only a tiny elite will profit from the money earned from the natural resource, as has happened in other African countries. Greenpeace, the environmental protection organization, has also warned of the incalculable risks to the Saint Louis ecosystem, particularly given the presence of important marine reserves near the gas platform.

The Senegalese government is not allowing such concerns to derail its plans. Elections are to be held in 2024, the country is carrying a heavy debt load, rising prices are increasingly becoming a problem, and expensive subsidies must be phased out. New revenue sources are badly needed. “We certainly won’t turn into Qatar or the Emirates, but gas and oil could vastly accelerate the development of Senegal,” says Petrosen executive Ty. The West African country is also hoping to use the gas to improve access to electricity in the country.

Carmen Abd Ali / Inland / DER SPIEGEL

Karl von Klitzing, the local head of Germany’s state-owned KfW development bank, has brought along a number of newspaper articles about German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s visit to Senegal. One of them bears a photo of Scholz amid the solar panels belonging to the largest state-owned photovoltaic project in Senegal, financed by KfW with funds from the German Development Ministry.

KfW development bank country director Karl von Klitzing with Ahmed Gueye from the Senegalese power supplier Senelec.

KfW development bank country director Karl von Klitzing with Ahmed Gueye from the Senegalese power supplier Senelec. Foto: Carmen Abd Ali / Inland / DER SPIEGEL

In Germany, though, this part of Scholz’s trip to Senegal was largely ignored, with the focus instead placed on the German chancellor’s efforts to secure future deliveries of Senegalese natural gas. His visit to the solar facility didn’t make an appearance in the main headlines. Von Klitzing hopes that isn’t a sign of things to come and that Senegal’s gas boom doesn’t come at the cost of renewable energies. “I think that both can work during a transitionary phase. Gas and renewable energies can complement each other,” he says.

At the moment, Germany and the other G-7 countries are engaged in negotiations with Senegal on a socially just energy transition. A similar deal is in place with South Africa, with the country set to receive billions for phasing out its coal industry. With COP27 underway, Berlin would love to reach an agreement with Senegal – observers believe that solar energy and sustainable hydrogen could play an important role in any such deal. But neither side is likely interested in turning their backs any time soon on Senegal’s natural gas fields.

This piece is part of the Global Societies series. The project runs for three years and is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The Global Societies series involves journalists reporting from Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe about injustices in a globalized world, societal challenges and sustainable development. The features, analyses, photo essays, videos and podcasts, which originally appeared in DER SPIEGEL’s Foreign Desk section, will also appear in the Global Societies section of SPIEGEL International. The project is initially planned to run for three years and receives financial support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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