At the time of writing there are over 70 Oil Companies with a direct interest in North Africa. 2400 major hydrocarbon discoveries have been made in Africa as a whole, with a majority being in North Africa. 26% of Africa's Oil lies in the onshore Cratonic basins of Algeria, Tunisia and Libya, including 50 billion barrels Oil equivalent in the Sirte basin, and 10.6 billion Oil equivalent barrels in the Ghadames basin. It is estimated that in North Africa alone, there are more than 100 billion barrels of remaining reserves (as of 2003) found in 16 basins.
Exploration began in the 1950s, with major onshore discoveries in Libya (the Sirte basin) and Algeria (the Tilrhemt uplift). The late 1950s saw a string of large finds in the Libyan Sirte basin, including Gialo (at 5 billion barrels), Sarir (at 4.5 billion barrels) and Amal (at 4.25 billion barrels). The productivity of these North African fields has been consistently the highest throughout Africa, in part due to the early establishment of export routes and transport infrastructure, which served to connect North Africa to Europe. A majority of Oil and Gas exported so far has been from rift basin settings, reflecting where a majority of African research has been focused. North African economic growth has been substantial in part thanks to the Oil boom of the last half century. Libya for example experienced particularly strong economic growth during 2003 and 2004, with real gross domestic product (GDP) estimated to have grown by about 9.8%.
Although offshore exploration began also in the 1950s, it wasn't until the late 1970s that work was moved below the 200m contour. Several medium sized fields were drilled in the early 1960s, notably in the Gulf of Suez, but it wasn't until 1967 that a major offshore North African discovery was made offshore the coast of Libya in the Sirte basin. Exploration below 200m only became fruitful in 1977, when the Pelagian basin, offshore Tunisia and Libya began to pay out.
While the rate of new discoveries declined in the 1980s, the widespread use of 3D seismic has once again encouraged a rush of targets to be drilled with some success (see map, right for offshore facilities).
Although 3D seismic reached North Africa only in 1983 (due to the harsh Desert conditions) a new major push has been initiated in the region. Shell has just started a major project in 2006 which will see much of the Sirte basin mapped aeromagnetically and surveyed with 3D seismic. By the time the work is complete in mid 2007, Shell will have acquired nearly 8000 km of 2D and 3300 square km of 3D seismic, as well as 68,000 km of aeromagnetic data. Drilling is planned to start in the second half of 2007. In the past year, BG, Exxon Mobil, Norsk Hydro, and Statoil (among others) have all announced major investments in North African exploration, as the true potential of the region is uncovered.