T THE EDGE of the Okavango Delta in northern Namibia, the land is so flat that I could see the top of ReconAfrica’s drill rig when we were about a mile away. ReconAfrica is a small Canadian oil-and-gas-exploration company that claimed to have discovered an oil-and-gas basin rivaling anything in Texas near one of the most pristine ecosystems in Africa, a remote, wide-open landscape where herds of wild elephants roam and endangered wild dogs hunt in packs. News of ReconAfrica’s alleged discovery had caused its stock price to shoot up, giving the company a value of nearly $2 billion before it ever pumped a drop of oil out of the ground. The discovery is also poised to kick off an oil-and-gas boom in Africa just when it has become clear to most scientists and political leaders that, to maintain a hospitable climate, fossil fuels need to stay in the ground. As we drove closer to the rig, I noticed a Namibian flag and a Canadian flag flying side by side on top, as if to suggest this rig were a symbol of international cooperation rather than one of planetary destruction.
I had driven up to the drill site from Rundu, a Namibian town about two hours away, in a beat-to-shit Land Cruiser with Steve Stockhall, a Botswana-based wildlife guide and photographer, and Stefan Kudumo, a Namibian activist and translator. We were all a little nervous as we approached the site — oil companies in Africa don’t have a reputation for playing nice with inquisitive journalists.
At the turnoff to the dirt road that leads to the rig, a pickup truck was parked, with three guys in sunglasses leaning against it. They wore black boots with khaki pants and military-style shirts. They eyed us as we drove by. We pulled ahead a few hundred feet, then parked and stepped out. The rig was about 200 feet away, surrounded by a chain-link fence. In the distance, I could hear the grinding and pounding of the drill bit as it pushed through 3,000 feet of rock.
I walked up to the guards. “Hello,” I said.
They just stared at us and grunted some reply.
“I’d like to walk over and have a look at the drill site,” I said.
One shook his head. “You can’t do that.”
“It’s a public road,” I said.
“It’s still trespassing,” he said.
I turned around and looked down the dirt road. I could see another guard at the entrance gate, and behind him, some trucks parked near the rig with the word “Halliburton” — the U.S. drilling-services company — written on the side.
I wondered what would happen if I just started walking toward the rig. But I decided that was a dumb idea. I’d seen drill rigs up close before. They are just a big diesel engine that spins a giant drill bit at the bottom of a hole. From the outside, there is not much to see. Besides, I felt bad for the guards. It would only mean trouble for them. They were just guys out there to make some money and feed their families.
Once they realized that I wasn’t going to make a mad dash for the rig, they relaxed. We talked for 20 minutes or so. Two of the guys also worked on a land-mine-clearing crew, searching the area for mines still buried after the South African Border War that was fought from the late 1960s through the early 1990s. When I asked one of them if he thought the drilling would bring any benefits to the people in the area, he shrugged. He was not there to answer questions. He was there for a paycheck, and that was all.
“Have you seen any oil or gas coming out of that hole?” I asked.
He shook his head.
“There’s supposed to be 120 billion barrels in the ground here,” I explained.
“We haven’t seen anything,” he said.
THE OKAVANGO DELTA is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and for good reason: It is one the world’s last wild places. It’s not a savanna or a rainforest or a jungle. It’s at the northern edge of the Kalahari Desert in Botswana — a desert formed of the wind-blown fragments of some of the oldest rocks on Earth. But at certain times of the year, water comes flooding down from the highlands of Angola, a gently rising plateau north of Botswana and Namibia that was the site of bloody conflicts for the last three decades of the 20th century. Out of these battle-scarred hills, this land of strife and suffering, runs the water that makes up the delta.
The water in the delta is beautiful and clear, unpolluted by chemicals or sediments. For wildlife, this water is a lifeline, a paradise, a refuge. Hippos and crocodiles thrive in the shallow channels and pools. More than 500 species of birds flash through the skies. It is a landscape of ancient baobab trees (one baobab in Namibia is estimated to be 2,100 years old) and riverbanks of papyrus, the plant from which Egyptians learned to make paper 4,000 years ago. It is an unfenced, undomesticated place that still moves to the rhythms of nature, where the big animals that populated your childhood imagination live and hunt and die without human interference.
It is very close to a place where, according to ReconAfrica, an ocean of oil lies beneath the surface. It is enough oil to transform the economy of Botswana and Namibia and shift the political power dynamics between these countries and the rest of the world, and make every investor who owns even a small piece of ReconAfrica very rich.
It is also enough oil to cook the planet like a marshmallow over a campfire. It is enough oil to ensure that, instead of jumping into a new clean-energy economy, big parts of Africa remain trapped in an extraction economy that makes the rich richer and the poor poorer. And, of course, it is enough oil to ensure that the Okavango Delta becomes an industrialized hellhole of drilling rigs and pipelines, of rainbow-colored oil slicks, and villages lost in a swirl of dust from passing Halliburton trucks and workers looking to get laid.
But claiming there are 120 billion barrels of oil buried in the ground is not the same thing as proving it. Nor is it the same thing as getting it out of the ground. In fact, if you’re smart and you know how the oil-development game works, and you know how to win over the right politicians, and you can persuade enough eager investors who are sitting at home in front of their computers looking for a way to make a quick buck that there might be something there — well, it doesn’t actually matter if there are 120 billion barrels of oil in the ground or not. You just have to convince people there could be, and you can make millions.
ON NOV. 10, 2020, FOUR MEN took their seats at the front of a room on the 35th floor of the Petroleum Club in Houston. The Petroleum Club is the holy temple of Big Oil, where the power and wealth of fossil fuels are expressed in a tower of glass and steel in downtown Houston. The four guys all looked alike, aging white guys in dark suits and ties. There was a lot of hype and a lot of talk about what an incredible investment opportunity ReconAfrica was, and how it had secured drilling rights to nearly 9 million acres in Botswana and Namibia.
Mining companies are often better at drilling into investors’ wallets,” one geologist told me, “than they are at drilling into rocks.
The star of the show was Dan Jarvie, a 70-year-old geochemist who had been a pioneer in the fracking boom in the U.S. and was now an advisory-board member for ReconAfrica. Jarvie is a small-time rock star in the oil-and-gas world, just as anyone is who was associated with the development of horizontal drilling and fracking that unleashed the shale-gas boom in the U.S. in the 2000s, and made gas drillers into overnight billionaires. It also released millions of tons of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere, and polluted lakes, rivers, and drinking-water supplies with toxic chemicals.
At the time of this coming-out party in Houston, ReconAfrica had not yet drilled a single exploratory well in Africa. ReconAfrica had existed on paper for less than two years. ReconAfrica, or Reconnaissance Energy Ltd. in full, was cobbled together by a developer named Craig Steinke. In 2015, Steinke had acquired the drilling rights to 6.3 million acres in northern Namibia. The company later acquired the rights to an adjoining 2.45 million acres in Botswana. Back then, ReconAfrica was little more than a handful of Vancouver-based mining speculators hoping to make an oil-and-gas play. In 2020, as everyone emerged from the Covid lockdown and the demand for oil and gas started to rev up, ReconAfrica made its move. It loaded a drilling rig purchased in Texas onto a ship and sent it across the Atlantic and trucked it up to Namibia, close to the border of Botswana and a leopard’s leap from the Okavango Delta. The rig was even given a nickname that honored ReconAfrica’s most valuable player: Jarvie.
At the Houston lunch, Jarvie bantered in an avuncular way with the 100 or so oil-and-gas industry fanboys in the room. But the real audience for the event wasn’t the people in the room, it was the potential investors who were watching this event on a livestream, people who had a few hundred bucks to invest and were looking for something they could get in on early and that would carry them off to Lamborghini Land. And Jarvie was perfect for this crowd.
“Good afternoon,” Jarvie joked. “Are you ready for a training course in geochemistry?” The crowd chuckled. Jarvie then threw up some slides and started talking about the character of the rocks — the “source rocks” in geologist-talk — beneath this region of Namibia and Botswana. He talked about organic carbon and hydrogen content of the rocks, and showed slides with a lot of numbers, and talked about how he calculated exactly how much oil and gas there is under the nearly 9 million acres of land that ReconAfrica had leased. Then he got down to what he called “the crux of it.”
He threw up a slide labeled “Estimated Petroleum Generation: Conventional and Unconventional.” On the screen was a data chart showing that, by his calculations, there were 120 billion barrels of oil and gas beneath ReconAfrica’s land. And that was, Jarvie insisted, “conservative.” (Jarvie would not comment on the methodology behind his calculations, but he did say via email that, as of 2021, he no longer works with ReconAfrica.)
In the room, you could see people doing the math in their heads: 120 billion barrels at $50 a barrel … holy shit! Or as one investor in a chat room put it, “this dude [is] awesome.”
“If you don’t believe these numbers … have at it,” Jarvie said with wise-old-man-of-the-oil-field self-assuredness. “It’s simple arithmetic.”
HERE’S MORE ARITHMETIC: 120 billion barrels of oil, if extracted, refined, and burned, would produce about 10 billion tons of CO2, which is roughly a quarter of the yearly global emissions of every country on Earth. To put it another way, the amount of oil that ReconAfrica says is buried under its land in Africa is a carbon bomb that would make it virtually impossible to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius, which scientists believe is the threshold for dangerous climate change.
If ReconAfrica is right and there is a lot of oil and gas below the Okavango Delta, somebody is going to try to go after it, no matter what damage it causes to the climate or the ecosystem of the delta. And in a battle between Big Oil and big elephants, you know who is going to win.
But in Africa, the argument to keep fossil fuels in the ground is not simple. Although Africans have been hit by the worst impacts of a warming climate, from droughts to crop failure to extreme heat waves, the chaos has largely been caused by rich Westerners with their high-consumption lifestyles. Excluding South Africa, the average person in sub-Saharan Africa uses less energy than your refrigerator. Not surprisingly, the per capita annual CO2 emissions of a person in sub-Saharan Africa is 0.7 tons. In the U.S., it’s 20 times that.
There is a good argument to be made that African nations should be exempt from carbon pollution limits and free to develop any fossil-fuel resources they have. Energy poverty, some would argue, not a rapidly warming planet, is the biggest problem that most Africans face. There are 597 million people, or half of sub-Saharan Africa, who do not have access to electricity. If mining and burning fossil fuels can help Africans grow richer, this argument goes, they will be better equipped to handle the ravages of a changing climate. Finding new sources of energy is all the more urgent given that Africa’s population is projected to explode from 1.3 billion today to 2.5 billion in 2050 and to 4 billion by 2100.
The problem with this argument is, you don’t need fossil fuels to solve energy poverty anymore. Now, in much of the world, solar and wind are cheaper ways to generate electricity than burning coal or gas. “The quickest and best path to energy prosperity for much of Africa,” Mohamed Adow, a climate-justice advocate and the director for energy and climate at Power Shift Africa, told me, “is to leapfrog directly to clean energy.” And it’s not a big leap. Namibia and Botswana both have more solar and wind potential than California. Namibia will soon be home to one of the leading green hydrogen projects in the world. James Mnyupe, an adviser to Namibia’s president, cut a deal last year with a German-led consortium that could lead to an investment of $9.4 billion in a green hydrogen plant in Namibia — a huge boost for a country with a GDP of about $12 billion. That’s less than one-tenth the annual GDP of the state of Nebraska.
Then there is the obvious insanity of drilling for oil and gas near a place as fragile and unique as the Okavango Delta. One oil spill or rig blowout and this entire ecosystem would never recover. Why take the risk? To see what oil-and-gas development means for a place like this, just look at what has happened to the Niger Delta in Nigeria, where oil-and-gas drilling has been going on since the 1950s. It is now one of the most polluted regions on the planet. Even in the most optimistic scenario, drilling near the Okavango Delta means roads, tree cutting, water pumping, big trucks, big drilling rigs — all the industrial chaos that goes with fossil-fuel development. “The Okavango River Basin is under siege by ReconAfrica,” Reinhold Mangundu, a Namibian activist, wrote in an opinion piece he co-authored with Prince Harry in The Washington Post. Drilling in the region, they argued, “would pillage the ecosystem for potential profit. Some things in life are best left undisturbed.”
(ReconAfrica refused to make any of its leadership or board members available for interviews, but through an outside PR firm, emailed a statement to Rolling Stone that said: “ReconAfrica is committed to protecting the environment, minimizing disturbances, and implementing best practices and international standards.”)
For all of these reasons, ReconAfrica’s alleged discovery of 120 billion barrels of oil at the edge of the Okavango Delta was a big deal. Big enough, in fact, that I thought it was worth traveling halfway around the world to have a closer look (and yes, I bought carbon offsets for my flights).
A few days before I left, I called Paul Hoffman, a Harvard professor and one of the most respected geologists in the world. Hoffman has studied the rocks and basins of northern Namibia for more than 30 years and knows them as well as other people know the faces of their children.
So I asked Hoffman if he was aware of ReconAfrica’s drilling plans in Namibia and Botswana and their claim to have discovered a new basin awash with 120 billion barrels of oil.
“Yes, I know about it,” he said. “There are good grounds to be skeptical.”
Hoffman explained that there was indeed a sedimentary basin beneath the sands in that region of Namibia and Botswana, but it wasn’t as deep or as promising as ReconAfrica claimed. The rocks in the basin had long ago been “cooked” by the Earth’s internal heat and pressure from mountain building as the continent was formed, Hoffman argued, which meant that any oil or gas in the basin had long been boiled off. To Hoffman, this was not a complicated insight. It was Geology 101.
“So there’s no oil and gas there?”
“So what is ReconAfrica up to?”
“One of the things you’ll discover when you start looking deeper into this,” Hoffman told me, “is that mining companies are often better at drilling into investors’ wallets than they are at drilling into rocks.”
FROM THE AIR, the Okavango Delta looks like the roots of a giant tree, or, alternatively, the synapses of a nerve. As the water flows down from the highlands of Angola, it funnels into a low spot created by the crackup of the continent of Gondwana tens of millions of years ago. The force of this continental split created rifts, allowing slabs of rock to slip down and create a basin, which is full of sand — the Kalahari Desert. And, in the rainy season, water. The water twists and curls over the flat plain of the Kalahari for about 300 miles, then, just below the bustling outpost of Maun, the water vanishes beneath the sands, leaving only the harsh and dry Kalahari.
I flew into the delta in a small prop plane and landed on a dirt runway. We loaded our bags into a well-worn, windowless Land Cruiser and drove for about 20 minutes over a sandy trail through the bush to a nearby camp.
When we arrived, a guide named Peter walked with me to my tent, which was perched above one of the channels in the delta. And there, directly in front of us in the channel, less than 100 feet away, was an elephant spraying water over itself with its trunk and making small trumpeting sounds. I had never seen an elephant in the wild before, and seeing this one now, so close, so playful, was a strange and thrilling sensation.
In the delta, the whole economy is built around that sensation. Wildlife tourism brings in about $108 billion in revenue to countries in sub-Saharan Africa. The Okavango Delta alone draws about 100,000 tourists a year, mostly at high-end safaris at lodges and camps that range from $500 to $5,000 per night. The obvious problem with this is that you have to be rich to go on safari. The less-obvious upside is that by catering to high-end wildlife tourists, the impact to the land and the wildlife is minimal. And the economic impact in the region is big: About 40 percent of the people in the delta region are employed directly or indirectly by wildlife tourism.
I spent the next five days at three different safari camps (the company that hosted me, Kwando Safaris, agreed to show me around because they wanted to help communicate what is at stake by drilling for oil and gas near the delta). We went on two game drives a day, one in the morning, one in the evening. I saw an elephant sleeping cross-legged in the shade of a kait tree, and a leopard sitting on a rock, and an Angolan tree frog clinging to a reed. Another day, a herd of elephants surrounded our vehicle. On a boat ride in the delta, we were attacked by a very angry hippo (we dodged it). Nights in the delta were noisy and alive. Lions roared. Baboons huffed and puffed.
The wildness of the delta feels like the remains of another world. And in some ways, it is. Less than four percent of the Earth’s land is considered to be ecologically intact anymore, and what’s left is threatened. According to the World Wildlife Fund for Nature’s Living Planet Report, vertebrate populations have declined on average by 69 percent since just 1970. As many as a million animal and plant species face the threat of extinction — a figure that translates to about 13 percent of bird species and 25 percent of mammals. Already, 61 percent of global land-mammal biomass is pets and livestock (that is, animals raised by humans for our consumption). Humans make up 37 percent, and wildlife a measly two percent.
“The Okavango Delta is a paradise,” says Namibian climate activist Ina-Maria Shikongo. “Why would you want to destroy that?”
CRAIG STEINKE IS a wiry guy in his sixties who likes to project an image of himself as an old-school Western roughneck. He says he does his best thinking on a horse, but doesn’t mention that most often that horse is a polo pony at the swanky Eldorado Polo Club near Palm Springs, California, which Steinke and his family have frequented for years. But his Western roots are real. He grew up in the wide-open spaces of Alberta, Canada. “You had two choices: You either raise cattle, or you get in the oil-and-gas industry,” he has said. He worked on a drilling rig for a while, then got into land deals. His first big play was with a company called Storm Cat (which was also the name of the polo team he rode on), which developed coal-bed methane wells in Wyoming in the 2000s. The company eventually went under, leaving 2,000 abandoned wells in the state.
The Okavango Delta is where the human story began,” one local guide told me. “And now a bunch of Canadian drillers want to fuck it up to make a quick buck.
In the late 2000s and early 2010s, fracking changed the energy game in the U.S. and Canada. Fracking is a method of drilling for gas and oil that involves using high-pressure water and other fluids (many of them toxic) to fracture the rock underground, allowing drillers to extract oil and gas in places it was impossible to access with conventional drilling. Steinke wasn’t much of a player in the North American fracking boom directly, but he saw an opportunity to export this technology to other places. He hooked up with several Vancouver-area oil-and-gas financiers, including Gordon Keep, CEO of Fiore Management & Advisory, the investment group headed by mining-industry billionaire Frank Giustra. Giustra, an old friend of Bill Clinton’s, is mining-industry royalty, a major philanthropist in Canada, the kind of guy who posts a photo of himself with the Dalai Lama on his website. He is also the founder of Lions Gate Entertainment. Steinke also connected with another pal of Giustra’s, Canadian mining legend Ian Telfer. Both Telfer and Steinke were very good at activating what Giustra calls “that hand-to-wallet reflex” in potential investors.
Steinke, with backing from Keep and Telfer, became what amounts to a fracking exporter, using this new drilling technology developed in the U.S. to mine reserves in other countries that conventional drillers couldn’t access. Their first oil-and-gas play was on tens of thousands of acres in France. Then they moved on to 60,000 acres in Mexico. Both deals fell apart when Mexico and France did an about-face on fracking due to the toxic impact it has on air and water.
In 2013, Steinke found Namibia. To hear him tell it, he was exploring the world with a team of geologists, and they came across news of a sedimentary basin near the Angola border. Angola had oil, there was no doubt about that — there was a thriving industry there. And there was certainly a sedimentary basin in the region. There had been one exploratory well drilled there in the 1960s, but it was a dry hole. Maybe Steinke knew something about the rocks in the basin that others didn’t. Or maybe he just recognized that a deep-basin play in Namibia was a good story that he could use to activate that hand-to-wallet impulse in investors. In any case, in 2015 Steinke leased the drilling rights for 6.3 million acres — an area the size of more than half of Switzerland — for an undisclosed sum. As a bonus, Steinke discovered that Namibian officials had data from an aeromagnetic survey of the region that had been done decades earlier. The survey data, which is commonly used in oil exploration, provides a simple map of underground rock layers that is useful in choosing where to drill. It is also useful if your goal is to impress investors with the seriousness of your project. Steinke even persuaded NAMCOR, the state oil company of Namibia, to take a 10 percent stake in ReconAfrica, which only added to its legitimacy.
But in 2014, the price of oil was in free fall, tumbling from $100 a barrel to $50. Steinke put the Namibia project on the shelf. In these kinds of things, timing is everything.
FROM THE BEGINNING, there were plenty of reasons why a savvy investor might be wary of ReconAfrica. For one thing, the company was based in Vancouver, Canada’s ancestral home of financial scams. The old Vancouver Stock Exchange (which has now morphed into the TSX Venture Exchange) was a notorious launching ground for fly-by-night mining companies and other penny-stock schemes. The city still attracts financial riffraff. In 2017, a Vancouver man was fined $800,000 for boosting a small oil-and-gas company’s stock price before selling off his shares. In 2022, Vancouver businessman David Sidoo was alleged to have participated in an elaborate “pump-and-dump” stock scam that defrauded investors of more than $145 million (the case remains unresolved).
For another thing, the data ReconAfrica released to justify the discovery of a deep sedimentary basin with what geologists call “a working hydrocarbon system” had big holes in it. Take the aeromagnetic data that Steinke had acquired when he leased the land, for example. It showed that there was a deep basin beneath the delta. But what kind of rock was it? How old was it? Did it have the kind of geologic structure that was likely to trap oil and gas? In the data it released to investors, the charts and data tables were often missing key numbers. Axes on graphs were often mislabeled or not labeled at all. “You could say it was shoddy work and unprofessional,” says Matt Totten Jr., a former BP geologist who has looked closely at ReconAfrica’s public documents. “Or you could say it was deliberately misleading.”
If you knew anything about the oil-and-gas business, the missing and mislabeled data would be pretty obvious. But ReconAfrica wasn’t aiming its investment pitches at sophisticated players who were asking hard questions. Viceroy Research, the short-seller that first blew the whistle on Wirecard, the German financial-services company that collapsed in 2020 after $2 billion in cash vanished, suggested that ReconAfrica was targeting people on Reddit and Discord who would see a chart with a few wavy lines and hear about 120 billion barrels and decide they had to get into the stock. As one Viceroy Research report put it: “[ReconAfrica’s] promotional resource estimates are aimed at intentionally deceiving unsophisticated investors.” (ReconAfrica has called Viceroy’s reports “false,” and claims that Viceroy Research was biased, since it shorted the company.)
It’s no coincidence that the rise of ReconAfrica coincided with the rise of cryptocurrency. Like cryptocurrencies, ReconAfrica’s value is built of air, of perception, and hype, suggests Totten. ReconAfrica didn’t need savvy investors. It just needed people who believed its story.
Starting in mid-2020, six months before it put its first drill bit into the ground, ReconAfrica began a campaign to boost the value of its stock. That in itself isn’t unusual. What’s unusual is the way ReconAfrica went about it. Over the next year or so, the company spent, by one estimate, more than $2 million on what amounts to fake news. It hired webcasters and podcasters who conducted interviews with Steinke and others on the ReconAfrica team that looked like legitimate journalism, but were in fact paid-for infomercials. It paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to shady investment-advice sites like Value the Markets to run stories about ReconAfrica, with headlines like this one in January 2021: “Did the Majors Miss the Last Great Onshore Oil Discovery?” The story invited readers to “Download our Special Report on ReconAfrica’s incredible opportunity and how early investors could profit.” Oilprice.com, which advertises itself as “The No. 1 Site for Oil and Energy News,” ran a series of articles about ReconAfrica by editor-in-chief James Stafford, with titles like “ReconAfrica: The Truth About the World’s Most Exciting Oil Play.” In another piece, “The Largest Oil Play of the Decade?,” Stafford interviewed Dan Jarvie, and promoted Jarvie’s claim that there were 120 billion barrels of oil beneath ReconAfrica’s land. If you are a savvy oil-and-gas investor, you don’t get your information from Oilprice.com. As a Viceroy Research report put it: “It is clear that these campaigns are being aimed at unsophisticated investors.”
All of Oilprice.com’s articles included statements disclosing that the company owned shares in ReconAfrica and that it had, in some cases, been paid by ReconAfrica for promotion. The statements also contained other warnings, including this important disclaimer: “We have not investigated the background of the company.” But who reads disclaimers? Sometimes, Oilprice.com’s stories or ReconAfrica’s press releases were picked up by more-legit sites like Business Insider or Yahoo! News, and reposted on Reddit and Discord, where retail investors hang out, transforming paid-for hype into a facsimile of real analysis. “These manipulative practices remind me of techniques used by Cambridge Analytica, who used something similar to pump up online support for Trump in 2016,” wrote financial analyst Marco Rodzynek, founder of NOAH Advisors, in a scathing online essay about ReconAfrica titled “Anatomy of a Billion Dollar Oil and Gas Investor Scam.”
(ReconAfrica has long denied that it has engaged in any impropriety, and said in a statement: “There has been a series of misinformation campaigns containing many false allegations that display a lack of knowledge and understanding of geology and oil-and-gas exploration.”)
Manipulative or not, the hype worked. Between mid-2020 and January 2021, ReconAfrica’s share price jumped up from $0.35 to $3. Before the company had drilled a single hole in the ground, it was worth $250 million. By April 2021, after ReconAfrica released a drilling report suggesting that it had found evidence of oil in its first hole, the stock jumped again, to more than $7, making the company worth more than $1 billion.
AFTER MY TRIP INTO the wilds of the Okavango Delta, I met up with my guide, the wildlife photographer Steve Stockhall, in Maun, Botswana, at the southern edge of the delta. We jumped into his Land Cruiser and headed north toward ReconAfrica’s drilling sites near the Angolan border. The road deteriorated from bad asphalt to bad dirt with giant holes that can rip a wheel off a truck. Stockhall, it turned out, was an encyclopedia about the region. He told me about how the Okavango had been saved by the tsetse fly, the insect that transmits African sleeping sickness. “No one wanted to go there,” Stockhall told me. “Besides indigenous people, the first people to come to the delta were crocodile hunters. They were looking for leather for Italian shoes.”
Our first stop was Tsodilo Hills, a second protected UNESCO site in Botswana that is in the desert on the edge of the Okavango Delta. It is a sacred site for the San, one of the indigenous peoples of sub-Saharan Africa. The San have lived here since the beginning of time, and genetic tests have shown that they are the first branch of the tree of humanity. Anthropologist Wade Davis calls the San “the oldest culture in the world.” The San are now surrounded by land on which ReconAfrica has acquired drilling rights.
It was a seven-hour drive to Tsodilo Hills from Maun, through empty, open land punctuated by big gas stations where trans-African travelers gathered to fill up on water and gas and junk food — in many ways, not so different from Texas.
Finally, we came to a faded wooden sign welcoming us to Tsodilo Hills. It was another half-hour down a bad dirt road to the entrance to the park, which was little more than a gate and a shack. The hills themselves are two rocky outcroppings that jut 1,000 feet out of the flat desert. By some estimates, this area has been inhabited for 100,000 years or more. “This is where the human story began,” Stockhall told me. “And now a bunch of Canadian drillers want to fuck it up to make a quick buck.”
The next morning, we met up with a 25-year-old guide named Lopang Majanga, who took us to meet the chief of the local San. We drove a half-mile or so through the bush until we arrived at a group of huts surrounded by a low wooden fence. A few chickens pecked around. A thin old man in worn khaki pants and a sweater and a beanie walked over to us and said hello. He had fine lines on his face and a quick, happy smile. Majanga introduced him as Xontae (sounds like “Kuti”), and they spoke Ju|’hoan, a language of sounds and clicks that linguists have traced back to one of the oldest languages still spoken by humans.
We drove to the base of one of the hills, then followed a path up to see the rock art. There were no signs, no guideposts, nothing that would suggest anything meaningful had ever happened here. But it’s a cradle of humanity. There are about 4,000 paintings on the rocks here — some are easy to see, some are high on the rocks and nearly inaccessible. What remains were done by San shamans over the past 1,200 years or so. The paintings are mysterious — some describe hunting or ceremonial scenes, others are portraits of animals — including, oddly, whales and penguins. (How did the San know about penguins?) Xontae stopped at one particularly beautiful painting of a lion. “When I look at this, it reminds me of when I was young,” Xontae said. “I feel like my parents are around. It reminds me of family.”
A few minutes later, at the end of our walk, I asked Xontae if he has talked to anyone from ReconAfrica about the drilling they have proposed nearby. He said that one man came some months ago to discuss it with the community. The man promised them that there would be no impact from the drilling and that when they were done, they would leave behind their trucks and other equipment for Xontae and his people to use. When I asked him if he thought that was a fair trade, Xontae laughed nervously. “Sometimes I think yes, sometimes I think no,” he said. “My people are poor. Maybe a truck will help. Maybe if they come here, they will improve the road.”
After our hike, Xontae wandered off to talk with a group of visitors who had just arrived. I asked Majanga, whose family goes back generations here, what he thought of the idea of turning the area around Tsodilo Hills into a drill zone. “Forty nations have banned fossil fuels,” he said. “Why are we still using them? We are very close to the delta. If they drill here, our ecosystem is going to die. That’s terrible. This place is a monument. If they are going to take it, there should be a big benefit to the people. I respect Xontae, but he doesn’t really understand. We will get no benefit from this. We will get nothing.”
NAMIBIAN CLIMATE-JUSTICE ACTIVIST Ina-Maria Shikongo first read about ReconAfrica’s plans in The Namibian. She thought, “How could they be drilling in this place? How can that be allowed?” The more she learned about it, the more it upset her. “They are in here like Buffalo Bill,” she told me.
As a member of Fridays for Future, a global climate-activist group, Shikongo had long fought for climate justice in Namibia. In her view, the real question about ReconAfrica was not whether they were there to make a quick buck, but whether they were neocolonialist rough riders who would open the door to more oil-and-gas development in the region. The company had drilled only one well, and already they were putting the delta at risk.
For one thing, National Geographic reported that the drilling ponds at the site — essentially shallow man-made lakes that are created to hold the water that flows out of the ground in deep-drilling operations, which is often polluted with drilling fluids and toxic compounds, like arsenic and benzene — were not lined, which is legally required at virtually all drilling sites in the U.S., especially if they are near fragile or pristine ecosystems. Without a protective membrane or liner, pollutants can leech down into the soil, potentially working their way into underground aquifers and then into the Okavango Delta itself, where those toxins can be lapped up by wildlife and livestock alike, or poison drinking wells.
(ReconAfrica says its pits are lined with bentonite clay, which, it claims, is effective and more expensive than conventional liners. It also claims its drilling fluids, which are usually laced with diesel and other nasty compounds, are “100 percent organic.”)
But according to Charles Shackelford, head of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Colorado State University, companies often try to get away with unlined pits because “it’s cheaper.” He also noted that the clay won’t stop the leakage of many types of toxic compounds into underlying aquifers.
A second fact that didn’t make sense to Shikongo was that ReconAfrica started drilling without doing any two-dimensional seismic studies. These studies are routinely conducted by oil-and-gas companies before they drill to help them get a better understanding of the rocks below, which can help identify the best places to drill.
Shikongo is not a geologist, but she has gleaned enough about the oil-and-gas business to know that drilling without doing 2D seismic studies first is a little like doing surgery without taking an X-ray. Did ReconAfrica want to drill a dry hole?
In February 2021, ReconAfrica held a public meeting about its operations in Namibia. The meeting, at the Hotel Thule in Windhoek, the country’s capital, was attended by about 50 people, most of whom were scientists and activists eager to find out more about what the hell ReconAfrica was up to.
ReconAfrica’s presentation, which was given by a Namibian geologist, was not much more detailed than what anyone could learn by reading the newspapers.
Shikongo was having none of it. When it was time for questions and answers, Shikongo stood. She had questions. She went through a litany of issues with ReconAfrica: Why did it start drilling without 2D seismic? Why didn’t it consult with the local community before it began? Was its literature about the project translated into indigenous languages? Why aren’t the drilling ponds lined?
She moved to the front of the room and brought up the fact that other activists had been intimidated by ReconAfrica employees at previous meetings. “If this is a clean job, why are they harassing us? Why intimidation? And why are we investing in fossil fuels at all? Why are we not investing in something that will be less destructive to our environment and our people? We have sun — what do we need oil and gas for?
It was glorious, and she didn’t let up.
“ReconAfrica is lying to us. They can deny it as much as they want, but I’m here — and if anything happens to me, we will know who it was. And if anything happens to my children, we will know who it was. ReconAfrica, leave Namibia. Thank you.”
A furious representative for ReconAfrica threatened to call the police, seemingly intent on having her arrested. After she took out her cellphone to record the threat, they left her alone. A few months after the meeting, ReconAfrica claims, it began acquiring, processing, and interpreting 2D seismic data in the region, a process that the company says should be complete this summer.
WE LEFT TSODILO HILLS and headed toward Rundu, a town on the Namibian border with Angola. It’s a stopover point for people making the drive to the game parks. There, we met at a small outdoor restaurant with Thomas Muronga, a local activist and friend of Stefan Kudumo. They both had been working to stop ReconAfrica. For Kudumo, the problem was that the company had bullied its way in and was doing whatever it wanted with little oversight. “Decisions being made in mining, but no consultations with anyone in the community,” Kudumo said. “Why don’t they talk to the people whose lives are impacted most?” Kudumo’s claims that ReconAfrica has made little effort to consult with local residents about drilling plans was widely echoed by virtually everyone I talked to in Namibia. ReconAfrica, of course, argues that it is a model corporate citizen and has held “over 700 community consultations and engagements in Namibia.”
Both Kudumo and Muronga talked about the risk they took in speaking out about ReconAfrica, and how the company did all it could to keep them quiet. “I was offered a bribe,” Muronga told me. “They offered me a job as a security guard if I would shut up. I turned them down. But this is how ReconAfrica works. If you play nice, you can make money.”
(In an email, ReconAfrica says it has a strict anti-bribery policy and any claim will be investigated.)
As we talked, I noticed Muronga looking over at two men in a pickup truck parked nearby.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“They’re ReconAfrica guys,” Muronga said.
“What are they doing?”
“Watching us,” he said. “Happens all the time.”
I turned and looked at them. Dark glasses, expressionless faces. Not menacing, exactly. But not friendly, either. They drove off. “They’ll be back,” Muronga said matter-of-factly.
IN MY HOTEL IN RUNDU, I tried to figure out how much money Steinke and others had pulled out of ReconAfrica. It’s not easy to determine, given the complexity of various holdings and disclosure rules. To sort through it, I have to take you through a complex deal that Steinke orchestrated after Renaissance Oil Corp., the company that owned drilling rights in Mexico, had become worthless after the Mexican government de facto banned fracking.
Here’s how it worked. In June 2020, shortly after Mexico halted fracking operations, ReconAfrica, which, remember, Steinke co-founded and held the most shares of, acquired the drilling rights to 2.45 million acres of land in northwestern Botswana that was adjacent to the 6.3 million acres in Namibia it had secured in 2015. According to a ReconAfrica annual report, in exchange for covering $73,900 costs in fees in securing the Botswana drilling license, a shell company by the name of Reconnaissance Energy Corp. — a name suspiciously similar to Reconnaissance Energy Africa Ltd., but a distinct entity wholly owned by Steinke — was awarded the right to acquire an option for 50 percent interest in the Botswana drilling rights of 2.45 million acres. A few months later, Steinke sold his shell company’s option to acquire 50 percent interest in the license to Renaissance — the company he was the CEO of — for $75,900 and 30 million Renaissance shares, a transaction that Renaissance said in some documents was valued at a million dollars.
Translation: Steinke figured out a way for Renaissance, his failed Mexico fracking company, to pay him — through his shell company — stock worth a million bucks for the rights to drill for oil in one of the most ecologically sensitive regions of the world. And one that any smart geologist knew was highly unlikely to have any oil or gas anyway.
Wait, it gets better. On April 19, 2021, when ReconAfrica’s stock price was near its peak, the company announced it was acquiring Renaissance, largely to get the other half of the drilling rights to the Botswana land and get control, Steinke said, of “the entire sedimentary basin.” In the deal, each share of Renaissance stock became worth 0.046 of a ReconAfrica share. And that turned Steinke’s 30-million-share windfall into 1.38 million ReconAfrica shares worth $7.6 million at the time of the deal. So that million dollars that Steinke had made had, over seven months, turned into nearly $8 million for doing nothing.
Of course, these kinds of shenanigans are played all the time in boardrooms around the world. But as National Geographic first reported, this was a particularly shady deal because Renaissance did not disclose the fact that it knew it paid far more for the stake in Botswana than ReconAfrica had sold it for to Steinke’s shell company. Furthermore, National Geographic reported that when ReconAfrica announced its plans to acquire Renaissance, explicitly for its option in the Botswana license, it failed to tell investors that it had sold that stake to Steinke’s shell company for only $73,900 the previous year. Complaints filed to British Columbia and U.S. securities regulators have similarly alleged inadequate disclosures, per The Globe and Mail.
But Steinke had one more move. Right around the time the Renaissance and ReconAfrica deal closed and ReconAfrica’s stock price was near its all-time high, he sold off a good chunk of his ReconAfrica stock. According to financial-disclosure forms, Steinke dumped $30 million worth of stock in 2021, and has gone from holding 10 million shares in the company to about 5 million shares today. All in all, according to one hedge-fund analyst I spoke to, Steinke has netted himself well north of $30 million. (Steinke, through ReconAfrica’s outside PR firm, refused interview requests, and denied $30 million in personal profit from ReconAfrica stock transactions. In addition, ReconAfrica described National Geographic’s reporting as a “hit piece.”)
WHEN I ARRIVED IN RUNDU, I took a taxi over to ReconAfrica’s Namibian headquarters to see if I could talk to anyone. The offices were at the edge of town, in a complex called the Rundu Fresh Produce Business Hub. It looked like the county fairgrounds somewhere in Illinois, except that it was vacant. ReconAfrica’s office was on the second floor. I expected a bustling operation. Instead, I found a long empty hallway with closed office doors. At the end of the hall, one door was half-open. Inside, I found a woman filing papers. “Can you tell me where I can find ReconAfrica’s offices?” She pointed to an unmarked office. The door was closed, so I knocked.
A Namibian man in a khaki shirt and pants opened the door. He looked to be in his forties, with a crisp, professional manner. I introduced myself, and he told me his name was Uaapi Utjavari. The place was sparsely furnished, with a metal desk and a map of Namibia on the wall. He handed me his business card, which identified him as “Integrated Project Manager” for ReconAfrica. I learned later that he had a master’s degree in geophysics and had been with ReconAfrica for less than a year.
I asked him if he would be willing to show me ReconAfrica’s drill sites.
“I will be happy to make arrangements for you,” he answered. He said that he had to get clearance from the main office, and asked if I could call him in a few hours.
So I took a taxi back to town, happy to have made the connection, and a little surprised he seemed so eager to show me around. But when I called Utjavari a few hours later, his tone was entirely different. He said he had checked with the main office. “It will not be possible to visit the drill site,” he told me gruffly, and then hung up the phone.
Of course, I went anyway.
AFTER OUR ENCOUNTER with the security guards at the drilling site, we spent the day driving around the area, talking to local villagers. People grow their own food and live in huts. There are no stores, only occasional roadside tables offering millet or freshly slaughtered beef.
One of Steinke’s favorite media talking points was that by drilling for oil, he was bringing wealth and progress to the people of Namibia. “Come to the Okavango,” he said on CNN. “You tell me that these people don’t deserve a better lifestyle.” ReconAfrica press materials brag about the company’s commitment to local development and claim that, as of December 2022, the company has drilled 26 wells to help locals access water.
In fact, most people I talked to who lived around the drilling site had no idea who ReconAfrica was or what they were doing. But a few people knew about ReconAfrica’s local development efforts. We stopped to talk with a couple walking on the edge of the dirt road about a few miles from the drill site. She had several jugs full of water in a wheelbarrow; he had six plastic jugs hanging from his shoulders by ropes. I asked them if they knew about ReconAfrica’s drilling operation. They both did. The woman said that ReconAfrica had drilled a new water well near the village, and that had shortened the distance they had to carry the water. “That has helped us,” she said.
Had ReconAfrica offered them any jobs?
“I worked on the road for two days,” the man said.
“What happened after that?” I asked.
“They said they had no more work.”
“How much did they pay you?”
The equivalent of one U.S. dollar a day, he told me.
RECONAFRICA FOUND NO EVIDENCE of commercially viable oil in the first two wells it drilled in Namibia. And last November, it announced that the well at the drill site I had visited was dry too. The company’s stock price had been hovering around $1 for months. “I don’t see anything to be ‘bullish’ about,” one angry investor posted. “Two years of drilling, no indication of ANY exploitable oil … Misleading statements and false hopes pushed.”
There were other signs of unraveling. Deloitte, the global accounting firm that was working with ReconAfrica, ended its relationship with the company. NAMCOR dumped half its stake. According to The Globe and Mail, investigators with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who are responsible for enforcing securities laws in Canada, interviewed at least two people about ReconAfrica’s public disclosures and the company’s relationship with a corrupt associate of the Namibian president. Several class-action lawsuits have been filed, alleging fraud against stockholders. During a call with investors in December, ReconAfrica claimed it was planning to do more work to better understand the geology of the site, but several analysts I talked to argued that the company only has cash to last through the third quarter of 2023. And then? “Unless they can lure somebody in for a joint venture, the game is likely over,” one analyst told me. “It will all just fade away into bankruptcy and lawsuits.”
For the people and wildlife of the Okavango Delta, as well as for the stability of the Earth’s climate, this could mean a happy ending. Yes, ReconAfrica has carved roads in the wilderness and clear-cut forests to build their drill sites. That damage will heal. But if ReconAfrica actually ever finds oil and gas, it would kick off a rush that would turn the delta into an industrial sacrifice zone and become a poster child for our collective willingness to sack even the most sublime cathedrals of the natural world.
For ReconAfrica’s investors, it’s a less happy result. One way to think about ReconAfrica is as a mechanism for sucking millions of dollars out of the pockets of investors. That’s a mechanism that is as old as capitalism itself.
In any case, Steinke and his pals have already moved on to a new adventure — in Kansas, of all places. This play is not for oil — it’s for helium, the gas used in party balloons, but also increasingly valuable in high-tech manufacturing. The playbook for this company, called Total Helium, appears to be identical: the same key players (Telfer, Keep, Steinke). The same targeting of investors. The same hype from Oilprice.com (“Unprecedented Helium Shortage Could Send Prices Sky-High”). There are no migrating herds of elephants at risk in Kansas, but the hustle goes on.
Jeff Goodell’s latest book, “The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet,” will be published in July. Reporting for this story was supported by Re:wild, a non-profit working to protect and restore the wild .