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‘We’re drilling in the dark’

‘Huge gaps’ in oil data

Gaps in geological data make it hard for oil drilling to be successful, geologist Peter Gatt said yesterday. The red dots represent previous drilling spots. The orange line is the boundary of the Maltese platform.

Gaps in geological data make it hard for oil drilling to be successful, geologist Peter Gatt said yesterday. The red dots represent previous drilling spots. The orange line is the boundary of the Maltese platform.

Malta has been drilling for oil in the dark, a top geologist said yesterday, suggesting a comprehensive geological survey is required to increase chances of success.

Peter Gatt called for the creation of a national institution to survey the country’s geology and insisted the country needed to “start taking geological research more seriously”.

Malta is the only EU country without a geological survey, meaning little is known of the rock composition of Maltese land and sea. As a result, exploration companies often have little to go on when drilling for oil, Dr Gatt said.

“Companies see Malta as a high-risk area, which is one reason we haven’t had that much drilling over the years and lack so much information.

“Malta has so many potential areas for exploration, with a platform 200 kilometres wide and a very large continental shelf,” he added.

The island has issued exploratory drilling licences to various companies over the years. But despite neighbours Libya, Sicily and Tunisia all having discovered oil, Maltese drills have always turned up dry.

This failure to strike black gold was largely down to “huge gaps” in geological data, Dr Gatt argued yesterday, with Malta “light years” behind countries such as the UK, with its 177-year-old British Geological Survey.

Local oil exploration has picked up again recently, after a decade-long lull.

Mediterranean Oil and Gas is likely to begin drilling next year, with sources indicating two further drilling licences are in the pipeline.

Dr Gatt’s made the comments as he presented the findings of his study into the geological composition of the Maltese sea platform.

The study analysed rock samples taken from six exploratory wells drilled by oil giants BP, Total and Shell as well as local rock outcrops.

The research findings show clear effects of climate change on Maltese rock, as wetter weather in North Africa led to a nutrient-enriched Mediterranean sea. The rock composition reflected that, Dr Gatt said.

“Rocks reflect sea level cycles, and there’s evidence of Maltese rock alternating between high- and low-nutrient ecosystems.”

According to Dr Gatt, climate change was making it increasingly likely that the Arctic pole would melt by 2030, turning the world into a unipolar one similar to that of the Oligocene period.

But aside from its findings into climate change, the research is likely to prick up the ears of oil exploration companies thirsty for data.

The irony of climate change research being used to further drilling for oil was not lost on Dr Gatt, who, however, pointed out that the findings could also help further carbon capture initiatives.

Malta Council of Science and Technology chairman Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando lauded Dr Gatt’s research as “a breakthrough for Maltese science”. The council supported Dr Gatt – an MCST employee – and his research.

Dr Pullicino Orlando also backed Dr Gatt’s calls for a national geology institution.

“We might have been going about things the wrong way,” Dr Pullicino Orlando said in reference to previous oil exploration strategies.

“MCST feels it is very important for us to have some form of geological unit to research local geology and make Malta more attractive to oil companies.”

Durham University geology professor Jon Gluyas argued the merits of carrying out such a geological audit. He has previously chaired the British Geological Survey.

Aside from the technical merits of surveys such as the BGS, Prof. Gluyas also noted that it benefited a country to have its own geological data. “Something like the BGS seeks value for the nation; private enterprise seeks value for shareholders,” he said.

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