GEOLOGY FOR ENERGY IN MALTA

Discussion paper published by the Malta Chamber of Geologists (October 2022)

Contents

Foreword

The Malta Chamber of Geologists (MCG) was established in 2022 to defend and regulate geologists and their profession in Malta. The Chamber is administered by its Council and is a member of the European Federation of Geologists which represents over 45,000 geologists in Europe. The Chamber has highlighted the contribution of Geologists and geology to society, public safety, and economic development in several Discussion documents. This document focuses on energy and is based on contributions of the following members of the MCG:

Dr Peter Gatt obtained his PhD from the University of Durham (UK) and works as a carbonate sedimentologist, engineering geology consultant and senior lecturer with 30 years’ experience and over 30 publications specialised on the Malta carbonate platform. Peter is President of the MCG and member of the Regulations Authority of the European Federation of Geologists.

Dr Paul Grech obtained his PhD from the University of Adelaide (Australia) and is a Geologist/sedimentologist with over 25 years’ international experience working in exploration, development, and operations in North Africa and Middle East on siliciclastic and carbonate hydrocarbon reservoirs. Paul is the international secretary of the MCG.

Ms Anne Van Dierendonck holds an MSc from the University of Utrecht (the Netherlands) and has worked as Senior Geophysicist with 30 years technical experience, 15 years as international staff with Shell (Brunei, UK, and Norway), 10 years as a consultant based in Aberdeen, UK and 5 years employed by Addax Petroleum (a subsidiary of Sinopec) working on Nigerian offshore assets.


1. Preamble: The Energy Transition

Global warming is an existential threat to Europe and the world. In line with the obligations of the European Green Deal, Malta and the rest of Europe are slowly transitioning from the use of fossil fuels to net zero emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050. During this energy transition phase, Malta’s power stations switched from oil to natural gas (LNG) as the main source of energy.

Natural gas remains the primary source of energy in Malta and several EU countries. Gas is listed in the EU Taxonomy Framework permitting economic activities that are environmentally sustainable, as recently re-confirmed by the European Parliament. The success of renewable energy sources during this transition phase requires substantial investment that is usually financed by income from hydrocarbon production. This link is proven by Denmark, which is the most successful country in the EU in the use of renewable energy sources and has been the EU’s largest producer of oil from its North Sea assets.

The large continental shelf area (>70,000 km2) held by Malta is its largest asset in terms of size and monetary value but remains underexplored. Despite the significant hydrocarbon potential of its continental shelf and the ongoing discoveries of gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean, Malta failed to attract any substantial investment from oil and gas exploration companies in the past decade. Lack of proper investment in the right structural frameworks and lack of policies with proper long-term foresight may have contributed to this failure. The opportunity cost amounts to the importation of over a billion euro of oil and gas as Malta remains the EU country most dependent on hydrocarbons for its energy demand (Eurostat), effectively making it the most energy vulnerable EU country.

2. Malta’s transitional and future energy mix

Malta’s present energy mix relies on two main sources of energy: hydrocarbons (LNG) which supplies about 90% of its electricity, and photovoltaic panels that produce the remaining 10% (Figure 1). Malta’s energy mix is not expected to change very much in the future, although more investment in photovoltaic panels and proposed wind farms will increase the contribution of renewable energy. Meanwhile, geothermal energy has not been considered by the Malta Government despite its potential for clean and continuous energy. At the current rate, it is expected that natural gas will remain the dominant source of energy in Malta’s future energy mix for the next 30 to 50 years. If Malta wants to achieve net zero emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050 it may have to consider carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). Geological storage involves injection of CO2 captured by industrial processes into deep rock formations. This process requires a detailed knowledge of subsurface geology and is already happening in the USA, Canada, Australia and the North Sea countries.

Whereas Europe is increasing the number of licences for drilling and gas production during this transitional phase, the number of offshore licences for oil and gas exploration in Malta have decreased. The contrast between Malta and the rest of Europe has its consequences and the Malta Government is now constrained to subsidise the increased price of gas at an estimated cost of 1.1 billion euro.

Figure 1. Malta is the most hydrocarbon dependent country in the EU. (source: Eurostat).

3. Geothermal and Hydrogen energy

Two potential sources of clean energy, the geothermal and hydrogen energy sources, remain unexplored by Malta despite their potential as an important part of Malta’s energy mix. Geothermal energy relies on heat derived within the sub-surface of the earth where temperatures can exceed 200°C. Water or steam carry the geothermal energy to the Earth's surface which can be used to generate clean electricity. Malta lies on stretched continental crust which should result in a high geothermal gradient. Nevertheless, Malta’s geothermal energy potential remains unstudied and untapped. An advantage of geothermal energy over solar and wind energy sources is that geothermal energy produces a constant supply of energy.

Hydrogen is another source of clean energy but accounts for less than 2% of Europe’s present energy consumption. Hydrogen can be produced by electrolysis of water but can also be derived by extraction from the ground. Experimental wells in Africa have targeted hydrogen gas fields. Malta has not considered the potential for hydrogen gas in its continental shelf.

4. The energy situation in Europe

Europe is currently experiencing the worst energy crisis in decades due to a shortage of fossil fuels, notably natural gas. The principal reason behind the current crisis is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has resulted in soaring natural gas and electricity prices. The sanctions imposed on Russia have led to an approximate 60% reduction in the import of Russian natural gas into Europe. Countries within the European Union have responded to the exorbitant energy prices by introducing large subsidies, price caps on natural gas, and other support packages to help consumers and utility companies. However, these measures are fuelling countries’ national debt and have contributed to the political and economic turmoil in Europe.

European energy policies within the last decade have exacerbated the natural gas shortage that Europe is currently facing. Germany’s reliance on Russian natural gas increased after the government implemented policies to gradually phase out both coal and nuclear power. In 2021, 55% of Germany’s gas imports were from Russia. The Netherlands has been Europe’s largest producer of natural gas but began phasing out gas production from the Groningen gas field in 2018 (expected to terminate production by 2022/23) due to the seismic risk to neighbouring buildings. Environmental pressures from governments and societies to transition to greener energy have led to the implementation of policies such as stopping the granting of licenses for new oil and gas exploration. These policies in combination with the collapse of the oil price in 2014/16 and again in 2020 due to the Covid pandemic, resulted in a significant decline in investments within the industry and thereby reducing the output of hydrocarbons.

5. EU Policy on energy

Europe is attempting to transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy to meet the ambitious climate targets set as part of the 2015 Paris agreement. However, the current energy crisis has demonstrated that fossil fuels still play a critical role in today’s energy supply and economy. At the current time, the green energy industry is not in the position to fully support the European Union’s energy needs. A revaluation is being made on some of the policies regarding fossil fuels.

To secure energy independence from Russia, the European Union (EU) has compiled a series of policies under the REPowerEU plan. Currently, EU countries are free to decide their own energy sources and policies. Due to the ongoing geo-political tensions and energy supply uncertainty, many EU countries have independently decided to revoke previous hydrocarbon drilling bans, accelerate exploration projects, and even resurrect coal power plants. Italy’s Minister for Ecological Transition has declared that Italy must double its domestic gas production by 2023, the United Kingdom and Norway have increased their gas production from the North Sea whereas Denmark has restarted oil exploration licencing in the North Sea.

6. Malta’s hydrocarbon exploration history

Hydrocarbon exploration in Malta’s continental shelf was sparked with the discovery of oil in Triassic dolomites in Ragusa in 1953. Local businessmen set up the Oil Development Company (Malta) Ltd to explore for hydrocarbons but failed due to the lack of capital. The following year, D’Arcy Exploration, later British Petroleum, was granted mining rights over the Maltese land area. From 1955 to 1959, BP drilled 3 stratigraphic holes and in 1958 drilled Naxxar-2 down to the Cretaceous limestones, with negative results. It failed to reach the primary objective, the Triassic, and BP relinquished the license the following year.

Following the enactment of the Continental Shelf Act in 1966, Malta’s offshore acreage was opened for exploration in the 1970’s. Shell, Aquitaine and Home Oil were awarded offshore licenses, with 4 dry wells being drilled between 1970 and 1973. Although the wells did not reach the Triassic main objective due to drilling depth limitations, they confirmed the presence of the carbonate sequence.

In 1974 the Medina Bank acreage was opened, and Texaco, JOC and Aquitaine were awarded blocks, with Medina Bank-1 drilled in 1980, 68 nautical miles south-east of Malta. Drilling had to be suspended when Libyan gunships threatened the Saipem rig when Libya claimed economic rights to the area. The matter was raised at the International Court of Justice in 1982, with the 1985 ruling dealing with only part of the contested territory.

IEOC and Reading & Bates were awarded concessions to the north of Malta in 1981, R&B drilling Gozo-1 in 1982 and IEOC drilling Alexia-2 in 1983. The latter well tested oil shows in the Triassic, while Gozo-1 was suspended in Cretaceous shales, short of the Triassic objective.

From 1990 to 2002 various blocks were awarded, with four wells being drilled. Both Valletta-1 drilled by Amoco/BHP in 1991 and Tama-1, drilled in 1993 by Amoco/Agip, were dry. The Government of Malta drilled Madonna taz-Zejt in 1998, while ENI drilled Lampuko-1 in 2002, both with hydrocarbon shows. Although hydrocarbons were not of commercial volumes, these technical discoveries proved a working petroleum system.

Since 2002, blocks changed hands several times. In 2005, Pancontinental was commissioned by Anadarko to carry out a seismic programme over the Chianti and Limoncello prospects, which it considered to be world class prospects. However, this had to be suspended due to a border dispute between Malta and Tunisia and Libya. Malta and Tunisia sign agreement on joint oil exploration in zones of the continental shelf in 2006.

In 2012, the Italian government unilaterally extended its continental shelf between Sicily and Libya, effectively stepping over large areas of Malta’s continental shelf.

After Lampuko-1 in 2002, only one well was drilled. Hagar Qim-1 was drilled by Genel Energy 150 kms south of Malta in 2014. Primary objective was the shallower Eocene, but no hydrocarbons were discovered, and the well was plugged and abandoned.

7. Malta’s hydrocarbon potential

Malta’s large continental shelf area (>70,000 km2) remains underexplored with only 13 relatively deep wells drilled (Figure 2), compared to Italy’s 6,000 wells over the past 70 years. Hydrocarbon indicators in Malta’s continental shelf include gas chimneys, submarine gas seepage, surface oil and subsurface oil and gas shows in several wells.

Early exploration pursued Triassic to Jurassic targets that are productive in Sicily but yet proven unsuccessful in Malta. One of the last well drilled for this target was in 1998, the 8012 m deep Madonna taz-Zejt well in Gozo, which is the deepest well in the Mediterranean. In the past two decades, the anticipated hydrocarbon plays were thought to be similar to the productive Cenozoic carbonate ramps in offshore Tunisia and Libya (Lipparini, et al., 2009), (Continental Shelf Department, 2017). This does not appear to be the case and resulted in the unproductive Hagar Qim well drilled in 2014. The re-classification of Malta area as an isolated carbonate platform (Malta Isolated Carbonate Platform - MICP) by Maltese geologists (Gatt, 2022) opens new prospects for Malta. Isolated carbonate platforms have hosted major gas discoveries since 2009 in the Eastern Mediterranean in offshore Cyprus and Egypt (Needham, et al., 2017), (Stanton & MacGregor, 2018).

The hydrocarbon potential of the MICP is definite and includes different hydrocarbon plays linked to the Malta and Medina escarpments, the central basins and western MICP affected by compressional structures. More work needs to be done to refine the geological model and hydrocarbon prospects. In view of the prospects, and the increased demand for gas, it is surprising that the number of wells drilled in the Maltese continental shelf has declined in the past two decades and presently there is no licensing (Figure 3).




Figure 2. Depth and year of Maltese oil wells compared to the global price of oil (Gatt, 2017).

Figure 3. Number of exploration licensing issued by Malta. Arrow marks date when Continental Shelf Department was established.

8. Administrative structures needed for a successful energy transition

To have a successful hydrocarbon/geothermal/hydrogen exploration program several entities need to be set up. Presently, only two structures exist, although relatively dormant or inactive:

a. Continental Shelf Department: This is a remnant of the former Oil Exploration Department set up by the Malta Government in the 1970s but is proving anachronistic and inadequate for the present complex situation and compares poorly to administrative structures in the EU. Since its establishment in 2012, the number of oil and gas licenses issued by Malta have decreased relative to previous years (Figure 3).

b. Oil Exploration Committee: An officially appointed body in the remit of the Ministry of Finance and Employment, but presently not operating or defunct.

The Malta Chamber of Geologists is proposing the following structures in this order:

a. Malta Geological Service: Malta remains the only country in Europe without a national Geological Service which is a major setback for investment in hydrocarbon exploration, geothermal energy, CCS and renewable energy which is dependent on geological data. The Service will investigate hydrocarbon leads and Hydrogen gas and market them to foreign oil and gas companies. The Service must be run by Geologists and serve as the official advisor to Government on natural resources and as a depository of geological data derived from the continental shelf and land. The British Geological Survey is the oldest Service of its kind in the world.

b. Oil and Gas Authority: An Authority that will regulate the hydrocarbon exploration sector and will be responsible for the licensing of concessions and exploration and production sharing contracts.

c. National Oil and Gas Company: The State establishes a Company that will licence large parts of the continental shelf (except parts already licenced to third parties) to this Company with the possibility of farmout of the continental shelf to foreign oil companies that will fund the same Company. The Company will aim to establish Malta as a viable oil exploration frontier area rather than as a steppingstone to known petroleum systems outside the Maltese continental shelf.

9. The contribution of Geologists

The Geological profession has a vital role for a successful hydrocarbon exploration programme and for geothermal energy development. Malta is the only European state that does not recognise the profession of the geologists in any form or by a State Warrant. In neighbouring Italy, the recognition and Warranting of the Geological Profession is justified by services offered by Geologists to ensure public health and safety as per EU Directive 2005/36/EC. It is proposed that a Warranting Board is set up between the relevant Ministry and the Malta Chamber of Geologists which would select the candidates that merit a Warrant based on the following knowledge and skills:

a) Exploration and evaluation of georesources such as industrial rocks, ground water, minerals, hydrocarbons and other georesources.

b) Data collection and preparing geological maps and geological cross sections

c) Identification and assessment of geological risks and land surface stability

d) Certification of geological materials (geomaterials) used in construction and industry

e) Engineering Geology, Pedological and Geotechnical surveys

f) Applied geology to planning, e.g., avoidance of water flooding

g) Provide accurate and reliable information to government agencies for public use

h) Oil and gas development

i) Geological and hydrogeological assessments and reports

j) Function as managers/director and guarantor of quarrying and mining activities

k) Function as director and guarantor for geotechnical laboratories

l) Contaminated soil investigations and remediation and solid waste siting

m) Understand the profession of geology and the role of Geologists in society.

References

Continental Shelf Department, 2017. Malta petroleum exploration opportunities. Malta: OPM.

Gatt, P., 2017. Proposed Structures and Legislation for the Oil & Gas Exploration Programme of Malta, Malta: unpublished report, OPM.

Gatt, P., 2022. Facies, depositional environments and drowning of Tethyan isolated carbonate platforms: the Paleogene carbonates of Malta. Facies, Volume 68-9.

Lipparini, L., Scrocca, D., Marsili, P. & Morandi, S., 2009. Offshore Malta licence in the Central Mediterranean Sea offers hope of hydrocarbon potential. First break, Volume 27, pp. 105-116.

Needham, D. et al., 2017. The Tamar Giant Gas Field: Opening the Subsalt Miocene Gas Play in the Levant Basin. In: R. Merrill & C. Sternbach, eds. Giant Fields of the decade 2000-2010. Tulsa: AAPG Memoir 113, pp. 221-256.

Stanton, S. & MacGregor, D., 2018. Petroleum potential of the Herodotus Basin: Applying regional analogues to predict plays and reduce potential risks. Cape Town, South Africa, AAPG International Conference & Exhibition.

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