The concession layer: 12,500 concessions, 2,000 companies, 41 countries

Oil geek question – how many concession blocks are there in Africa? (Answer below)

Transparency has won big victories in its 15 years or so of life as a movement. EITI got going and spread to 50 countries. Companies and governments agreed some transparency was a good thing, and the national security argument that prevailed in dozens of states, which said talking about these things was treason, was swept away.

But the paradigm for most of that time has been what geeks would call “n + 1” – progress is measured by starting from zero and counting up to see how many additions have been made. Now two countries have published their contracts, now five have, now seven. We have n number of reports this year, which is so many more than last year, and that was so many more than the year before that.

In this context, there were debates about how the information set free by this work has been put to use – or if it has been put to use at all.

But I’d like to suggest it’s time to consider a different approach. Not continuing to count up from zero, but counting down from the assumption that our common goal is full disclosure. In geek speak, “1-n”, not “n+1”. It’s a logic which flows naturally from the wave of new disclosure requirements in Europe, Canada and the USA, which are universal in scope. Under the EC directives, and Dodd-Frank if it ever makes it to being enforced, all listed extractives companies have to disclose all significant payments, in all projects, in all countries.

So why not texts of all contracts, and details of all concession blocks? And if we can’t achieve everything immediately, why not measure how we are doing, not by how much more we have than we did, but how much less we have than we should have – “1-n”? Not how much more have we got than before but what percentage of the total?

In that spirit, OpenOil would like to announce a modest contribution: today we are publishing an index of most the data we could find publicly available regarding the world’s oil concessions outside the United States. About 12,500 concession blocks in 41 countries, including references to about 8,000 licenses or contracts involving some 2000 companies. It is designed as the sister to the repository published last month, which aims to provide one-click access to every contract that has entered public domain.

Of course it is only a subset of the total. But how much of a subset? That brings us back to the question: how many oil concession blocks are there in Africa?

At this point I have to admit we don’t know – exactly. We have counted 2,855 in the 47 countries we could find any data for. But the data are very dirty – a lot have been pulled from low resolution concession maps, and it turns out that even government agencies can be quite loose in their terminologies so it is not always clear even looking at official sources, what is a block and what isn’t. There is probably a five percent margin of error within the countries counted, and let’s say the eight missing countries could add another 20%. So let’s say somewhere between 2,800 and 3,300 oil concession blocks currently on the African continent. Of which maybe 1,000 are currently unassigned.

This gives us our first 1-n measurement. Because there are about 100 main (host government) oil contracts published from the African continent. In the n+1 world, a couple of years ago even, that would have sounded like a lot. But, even while we have to introduce more margins of error to account for old data, unclear statuses and the like, we can safely say n to take away from 1 is over 90%. Less than ten percent of Africa’s oil contracts are in public domain.

Of course we knew that anyway. But the point is we have now reached a stage where we should index this, and work towards ubiquity.

Grabbing this data has thrown up a few interesting questions. Like:

1) Does a more comprehensive mapping exist anywhere? Our guess: almost certainly, in commercial databases like Wood Mackenzie, Rystad or Deloitte. But it is only a guess because we have not spent the many thousands of dollars it would cost to access them.

2) Is a more comprehensive mapping held anywhere by public institutions, such as the IMF or World Bank?

3) How fast can developments like the new EITI standard, which requires full license registries, or the Open Contracting Partnership, take us towards comprehensive information? Because we would like to think that the contracts repository and this concession library offer some value for now. But if they were still the only attempt to build global level data frameworks in public domain in two years time, that would be sad.

Finally, back to that gnawing question – what is the point? And there are three things to say.

First is that the “zombie transparency” so ably outlined by NRGI’s Dani Kaufman is a very real danger of partial transparency. Datasets sit unused because they can’t be made to yield any insight, and a big part of that is they are too scattered to be connected one to another – and it is above all the “network effect” of converging and meshing different data sets which allow rich insight to emerge.

Second is that oil is an industry with global markets, prices and projects competing for investment capital. Framing it as such has to be a step up for governance.

And third, a push towards universality – all contracts and all concessions in public domain – is only what is due to the public. Who are, after all, the legal owners of sub-soil resources in every country in the world bar one. What management of a company would be taken seriously if they published a partial profit-and-loss, or balance sheets from only some departments?

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