CABINDA, Angola — In the Atlantic waters off the Angolan coast, work goes on around the clock on the Brazilian-owned Petrobras 16 oil rig.
The Brazilians, famous for drilling in some of the deepest parts of the planet’s oceans, are working Chevron’s oil fields, searching for fuel to power the world’s cars.
The rig sits in water more than a mile deep. It is part of the oil boom which has made Angola a rival to Nigeria as Africa’s biggest oil producer. This southern African country has a reputation for pumping some of the finest gasoline-grade oil in the world. According to the state-owned drilling company Sonangol, Angola's wells will produce about 1.6 million barrels of oil per day in 2009, down from 2 million barrels per day in 2008.
Angola is a relatively new member of OPEC, joining the association of oil producing nations in 2006. The organization asked Angola to reduce output to bolster energy prices because the economic downturn reduced worldwide consumption. In late 2007 OPEC assigned Angola a production quota of 1.9 million barrels a day, somewhat less than the 2 million to 2.5 million barrels per day that Angola's government had wanted.
Exploration rigs like the PB 16 are semi-submersible and can be moved fairly easily around the ocean to drill in different places. Finding oil is their purpose. After discovering oil they test it. A torpedo-like testing rig is dropped down the well stem deep into the hole in the seabed. While the rig tests possible oil and gas deposits, the enormous pressures drive the mixture of oil and gas up and out of the well.
This mixture is burned off the side of the rig and produces a massive plume of fire, big enough to create its own weather system. Workers spray water over the rig to keep the paint and rubber fittings from melting during the burn, which may last for weeks. In other countries flaring, as it is called, is banned, and the mixture must be contained and stored. But in the waters off Angola’s Cabinda Gulf, where environmental law is decided by one of Africa’s longest-serving presidents, flaring is normal.
Angola's high economic growth rate is driven by its oil sector. Oil production and its supporting activities contribute about 85 percent of GDP. Increased oil production supported growth averaging more than 15 percent year from 2004 to 2007, according to the CIA World Factbook.
To fully take advantage of its rich resources — gold, diamonds, extensive forests, Atlantic fisheries and large oil deposits — Angola will need to implement government reforms, increase transparency, and reduce corruption. The government has rejected a formal IMF monitored program, although it continues annual consultations and ad hoc cooperation with the multilateral organization. Corruption, especially in the oil and mining sectors, is one of Angola's most pressing problems.
Although Angola has one of the world's fastest growing economies, two-thirds of all Angolans survive on less than two dollars a day, according to the World Bank.
Angola is listed as one of the world’s least transparent countries in the world, with little press freedom. Because of the country's oil wealth, the government is relatively impervious to external pressure to open the budget to scrutiny. So between the tight-lipped government and the oil companies whose earnings prop up the government, there is little accounting of where the oil earnings go.
In a suprising turn, the oil company British Petroleum (BP) announced how much money it paid the Angolan government for its oil concessions. The company almost lost its drilling rights, but it stood firm. No other oil company has disclosed their payments, and the group Global Witness called BP’s disclosure "heroic."
Transparency International and other groups maintain that it is ultimately the consumer’s choice whether a country like Angola reforms its corruption or not. They say American consumers, who burn Angolan oil 30 percent of the time they drive their cars, can vote with their wallets when it comes time to buy gas. Transparency says consumers can take the responsibility to find out who are the more honest players in the oil industry and to support them.