African production of natural gas poses a vexing climate challenge

SAINT LOUIS, Senegal - As a young geologist working for Senegal’s state-owned petroleum company in the 1990s, Macky Sall was charged with prospecting for oil and gas in this West African nation. For years, he and his colleagues came up empty.

But more than two decades later, after Sall was elected to be Senegal’s president, an American energy company found a gas deposit so big that he has called it a “game changer.” The 15 trillion cubic feet of gas found in 2015 has turned Senegal into one of Africa’s biggest potential producers of natural gas - and turned Sall into a global champion for the right of developing nations to use their resources, including fossil fuels, to industrialize and develop.

After multiple delays, Senegal is now set to start producing gas from the reserves later this year, according to oil and gas giant BP, which is leading the operation.

The World Bank estimates that Africa was home to 40 percent of natural gas discoveries between 2010 and 2020, including one off Senegal’s coast near Saint Louis and another smaller deposit closer to the capital, Dakar. And in 2022, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, European leaders, who had previously pledged to move away from fossil fuels, started looking toward Africa’s natural gas to replace flows from Russia.

Environmentalists have warned, however, that such efforts by developing nations could become among the most important drivers of climate change and thwart global attempts to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. Environmental researchers generally agree that natural gas is preferable to oil and coal, but they also say it is still a fossil fuel that contributes too much to the planet’s warming at a moment when the United Nations has warned that drastic measures are needed to limit climate change.

Developing countries, like Senegal, often look to the World Bank and other global financial institutions for help with such ambitious development. So these natural gas projects will pose a test of the international pledges made at climate conferences to phase out fossil fuels.

Sall, who will leave office next month after two terms, has repeatedly squared off with environmental groups at global climate and energy conferences. In an interview at the presidential palace this month, Sall dismissed the criticisms as “climate fanaticism,” saying that many critics are from developed countries, including the United States, where industrialization has been made possible by fossil fuels.


“How can you tell people in Africa, where half the population does not have electricity … ‘leave your resources in the ground’?” Sall said. “There is no sense in that, and it is not fair. We need an energy transition that is fair.”

Sall is among the leaders and energy analysts who argue that natural gas in particular will be necessary for getting electricity into the homes of the 600 million people on the continent who lack it.

From the shore of Saint Louis, a historic fishing hub in West Africa, infrastructure for processing Senegal’s gas is visible on the horizon. The gas reserve itself, which was discovered by Dallas-based Kosmos Energy, sits about 75 miles offshore along Senegal’s maritime boundary with Mauritania and is more than a mile under the sea floor, making it among the deepest offshore projects in Africa to date.

In 2016, BP signed on as an operator for the field, which officials named “turtle” in French and which they figure has a 30-year production potential. Kosmos estimates that the total gas in place discovered by the company in the region is about 100 trillion cubic feet. Algeria, Egypt and Nigeria are currently Africa’s top producers of natural gas.

The United States remains the world’s biggest producer of natural gas, followed by Russia, Iran and Canada. Natural gas powers about 40 percent of the electrical grid in the United States, according to the federal government, and U.S. exports of natural gas set a record high in the first half of 2023.

Huge power deficit

For the people of Saint Louis, located between the Senegal River and the Atlantic Ocean, climate change is not a theoretical threat. The United Nations has identified it as the most vulnerable city in all of Africa to rising seas.

Mamadou Thiam, who was displaced from his seaside house because of rising waters, said that when the natural gas project was announced, he and other residents cheered. “Everyone said, ‘Our lives will be better,’” said Thiam, who hopes the gas will bring electricity so he can get a refrigerator and stop walking more than a kilometer to charge his phone.

Nationally, Senegal has a higher electrification rate than most other countries on the continent. Still, 30 percent of the population lacks access to electricity.

The “huge power deficit” in Africa must be taken into account in debates about the use of fossil fuels, said Vijaya Ramachandran, an energy analyst at the Breakthrough Institute in California, noting that the average African consumes as much energy in one year as the average American does in four days. Overall emissions from the continent are less than 4 percent of the global total, although Africans represent nearly 20 percent of the population.

“We cannot deny Africans the opportunity to provide much needed electricity,” Ramachandran said.

But even after Senegal’s offshore gas field begins producing in coming months, many Senegalese could still have a long wait ahead. The vast majority of gas initially produced would be exported to Europe, Sall said.

The government intends the second field closer to Dakar to be tapped for domestic use. After officials disagreed with BP’s desire to also use it for export, Senegal is looking for a new partner to join Kosmos and the state-owned oil and gas company in a joint venture to develop the field, according to Mamadou Fall Kane, deputy secretary of Senegal’s natural resource management agency. BP did not respond to a request for comment.

Sall sees gas as helping Senegal transition away from oil, which powers most of the country’s electricity, as more energy from renewable sources is brought into the electrical grid. But he said it’s unclear whether the World Bank and other international development agencies will help finance expensive infrastructure projects, including pipelines and a processing plant, needed to use the gas domestically.

The World Bank provided $30 million in funding in 2017 for Senegal’s development of its natural gas sector, but the bank dropped its funding several years ago for another project to convert existing power plants to natural gas. A report released this month by the International Energy Agency outlined the challenges that Senegal’s gas industry faces as development banks move away from funding fossil fuel projects, noting that the country’s “midstream gas infrastructure is still under discussion, and it is unclear how much it will cost, who will finance it and when it will be ready.”

World Bank President Ajay Banga has said it has dramatically reduced funding for fossil fuel projects including natural gas over the past decade. He acknowledged that poorer nations still need gas for their development, adding that the bank believes natural gas “plays a role, but a very small role.”

Even if the World Bank does not fund gas projects in Senegal, Sall said the country would still find a way to move forward. “It would be hard,” he said. “But it will not stop us. We will not leave our gas under the ocean floor.”

Concerns over natural gas

Natural gas may emit less carbon dioxide than oil and coal, which is being used by India and China to fuel their growing economies, but environmental activists say developing gas projects is shortsighted.


At the current rate that natural gas projects are being developed, 70 percent of the increase in emissions from fossil fuels by 2030 is expected to come from gas, according to Climate Action Tracker, which is a collaboration of two Germany-based nonprofit organizations. For the world to meet the Paris agreement goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels, natural gas power should be produced at less than a third of today’s levels and effectively phased out by 2040, the group found.

A study by Friends of the Earth Mozambique found that the greenhouse gas emissions from three gas projects under development in that African country could over their lives equal seven times France’s annual emissions - and 49 times Mozambique’s current annual emissions.

Dipti Bhatnagar, an activist with Justiça Ambiental Mozambique, said that access to energy is a human right but that the fossil fuel industry cannot position itself as the solution. In Mozambique and elsewhere on the continent, she noted, the exploitation of fossil fuels has done little to benefit the majority of the population, only international companies and a small circle of elites.

Sall, who has been personally involved in discussions with the oil and gas companies, said he is determined that Senegal not fall into that trap. He said he has helped negotiate agreements requiring the participation of local businesses and supported laws ensuring that gas revenue pay for services such as health and education.

The project takes a toll

As the sun set on a recent evening in Saint Louis, fisherman Nalla Diop looked beyond the massive waves toward the gas platform. He said for the past few years, fishermen have been barred from the waters around it, which he said sits above a coral reef where they used to do some of their best fishing.

“Gas is in the interests of all, if it is well managed,” said Diop, 57. “But the impacts cannot be denied.”

Fishermen said their livelihoods were already suffering because of the arrival of foreign trawlers, which decimated the fish stock, and a ban on fishing in Mauritania’s water without licenses. The natural gas project has been another blow.

“We have a right to fish, and Senegal has a right to export its gas,” said Elhadji Fall, president of the fishermen’s association in Saint Louis. “But how can we do both?”


Thomas Golembeski, a spokesman for Kosmos Energy, said there have been extensive discussions with the community. The company built small artificial reefs for fishermen, he said, and a bigger one is planned this year.

Mamadou Diop, an onion farmer who has lobbied unsuccessfully for years to get his village electricity, said that surveyors recently arrived in his neighbors’ yards, taking measurements for a pipe to transport gas.

They explained that construction could mean digging up fields, said Diop. But he said no one could tell him whether it would actually bring the electricity for which he’s been waiting.

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Mamadou Coulibaly in Saint Louis and Sarah Kaplan and Evan Halper in Washington contributed to this report.