The Atlantic Mirror: The South Atlantic Basin as a Future Energy Hub
WASHINGTON—In 1912, the German meteorologist Alfred Wegener proposed the theory of continental drift, which offered a plausible explanation for what map makers, scientists, and others had noticed for centuries: the Americas seem to fit neatly into the continental landmasses across the Atlantic Ocean. These giant jigsaw puzzle pieces once formed a single land mass known as Pangaea, which, thanks to plate tectonics, slowly drifted apart over millions of years, pressing against the Pacific and Nazca Plates and pushing up the mighty Andes and Rocky Mountains. In their wake, the Atlantic Basin opened, leaving behind a great ocean that would one day divide the Old World from the New.
The geological similarities between the South American and African coasts are not lost on modern-day energy companies, which recently began drilling offshore wells to test what is known as the Atlantic Mirror Theory. The same salt layers off the coast of Brazil have been found along the West African coast, roughly mirroring where one would expect them to be, considering how the continents once fit together. The oil reservoirs found on both sides of the Atlantic are thought to have formed 100 million years ago, when South America and Africa were nestled comfortably together.
Beginning in 2007, Brazil has found multiple offshore pre-salt oil fields, named for the thick layer of sand, rock, and salt that lie between the ocean and the oil deposits. The largest, discovered in the Santos Basin in 2010, is known as the Libra field and is estimated to contain between 8 and 12 billion barrels of recoverable oil. Amid protests and legal challenges due to the participation of foreign oil companies, Brazil auctioned off Libra development rights on October 21 to a consortium comprised of Petrobras, Shell, Total, CNOOC, and CNPC.
In 2011, the Zaedyus exploration well drilled by Tullow Oil bore fruit in the form of a 700 million barrel oil field off the coast of French Guiana, which mirrors Ghana’s Jubilee oil field, discovered in 2007. Companies are now rushing to drill exploratory wells off the coast of Angola, where they believe the Kwanza-Benguela and Namibe basins may mirror the Santos and Campos basins of Brazil. Already, the Lontra field off the coast of Angola is expected to hold over 1 billion barrels. In fact, Angola may soon surpass Nigeria as Africa’s largest oil producer.
This prospect bodes well for Brazil and its oil giant Petrobras, since Angola and Brazil share a common language and culture inherited from their Portuguese colonizers. Though no future West African discoveries are expected to be as large Brazil’s Libra field, the prospective deposits, combined with Brazil’s own huge reserves, will make the southern Atlantic Basin a vital energy hub in the coming decades. As the countries of the north Atlantic assist in the development of these oil fields through expertise and capital investments, north-south linkages will become increasingly important, but not more so than the south-south ties embodied in the Brazil-Angola relationship.
The political, economic, and social connections that bind the countries of the Atlantic Basin together are strongest between the countries of the north Atlantic, but north-south and south-south relations are due to expand. Energy is an obvious area in which to pursue cooperation, given how vital it is to all societies, but it should not stop there. Over time, the nations of the Atlantic Basin would do well to deepen their relationships, build a complex web of interdependence, and perhaps one day look at their counterparts across the ocean as if staring into a mirror.
Tim Ridout is a Wider Atlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Scott Estrada is an intern in GMF’s Wider Atlantic program.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.