Monrovia – Liberia’s oil industry is holding its breath waiting for the outcome of ExxonMobil exploration efforts by the end of the year.
With global oil prices low, and little interest by big oil companies in Liberia’s yet unproven oil reserves, Exxon’s drilling operation may represent Liberia’s last chance of discovering oil for some time.
But if Liberia does have an oil boom many observers worry whether a country without oil experts can be ready for the huge task ahead?
An investigation by FrontPageAfrica and New Narratives found that only one of the universities or higher institutions of learning in Liberia is offering courses in Petroleum Engineering or Oil and Gas management.
These are the degrees that will be essential if Liberians are to have a role in the management of their own petroleum industry.
“We are not in the position to offer oil and gas management courses, because it entails a lot to run such department,” said Norris Tweh, University of Liberia, (UL) Director of Press and Public Affairs.
“We will need to establish the department, with a well-furnished laboratory and find trained professors to teach the courses.”
At the University of Liberia, being one of the first and biggest universities in the country, some students in the Department of Geology are receiving some training in the area of oil and gas.
Apart from UL that is a Government run institution, faith based universities have also been unable to offer oil and gas management courses, for similar reasons faced by the University of Liberia.
“There are many areas in science engineering technology that many Liberian institutions are not up to speed on, but we are relying on experts or advice from outsiders,” said AMEU Interim Vice President for Academic Affairs, Mrs. Dawn Cooper Barnes.
“Because of the lack of resources, we sometimes invite experts that are paid by grant money or donor funding’s.
This is how Liberia addresses the problem of best practice in oil and gas. But we are not addressing it by developing our own experts yet,” said Barnes.
At Stella Maris Polytechnic, run by the Catholic Church in Monrovia, Sister Mary Lauren
Browne, Chief Administrator and President, said in order to run petroleum engineering, they would need qualified instructors in order to teach courses in the area, and they will also need a bigger facility than what they now have.
“In order to offer such course, all of the requisite have to be in place and we do not have the capacity now,” said Sister Browne.
“We need a lot of capital to transfer to out Po-River campus, so space is another handicap we are facing. We will think about it in the future, because that is the reason of a polytechnic.
But it all boils down to dollars and cents to offer such course because we will need a lab which is very costly and we will need funds to pay qualified teachers to teach the course.”
Sister Brown said the institution has nearly 2,000 students studying courses such as building and construction, civil and electrical engineering, nursing and social work. There is a Teacher’s College and a Business College.
Sister Brown says she tells students always to push to start their own business and not always rely on Government to do everything. As long as there are no opportunities in oil and gas those fields will not be a priority at the university.
St. Clements University faced tough questions last year when a report by FrontPageAfrica/New Narratives found it had lured students with the promise of courses in oil and gas fields but then failed to provide instructors to teach the courses.
Students complained and left the school in large numbers.
On a recent follow up visit to St Clement University Campus in Paynesville this journalist was denied entry by the University registrar, Mr. Olydacious Dennis, who refused to answer questions on the university's current offerings.
There is a corps of Liberians who were given top training at international institutions in the years
2011-2013 as part of the National Oil Company of Liberia's agreements with super major oil companies that signed exploration licenses worth more than $100M.
Many of those graduates have found themselves unemployed with the collapse of Nocal last year. They are now among those most hopeful that Exxon will find oil and provide them with jobs in the near term.
One such person is Mr. Urias A. Taylor, who is now a part time Lecturer and Supervisor at the University of Liberia’s Geology Department.
“We are a good number of students who studied Petroleum Engineering and other oil and gas related courses outside of Liberia that can be used when Liberia is ready to work along with us, because many of us are now out of jobs,” said Mr. Taylor.
But if Exxon discovers oil there will be a need for many more workers in the field. Mrs. Barnes worries that oil companies will simply employ foreign workers for those roles.
While the recently passed Petroleum Law had provisions to ensure oil industry jobs went to Liberians, Mrs. Barnes said without training there will not be any Liberians to fill those roles.
“We need to do a better job in marketing our own local people, because if the oil companies have experts from Harvard University or Penn State University, who do you think the oil company will hire first?” she asked.
Liberian institutions face a difficult bind. If they train people in oil industry jobs now there is a good chance those graduates would join Taylor and his colleagues in unemployment.
And oil and gas courses are expensive. Taylor thinks institutions should wait until oil is Discovered and the investment in training will pay off.
“Based on my experience when I studied in Italy, I got to know by just looking at the catalog from different Universities around the world that petroleum engineering and oil and gas related courses are very expensive, because anybody studying oil and gas or petroleum related sciences, will be paying very high fees as compare to other courses,” said Mr. Taylor.
Mr. Taylor who said the reason he is teaching at the Geology Department at the University of Liberia is because he previously studied hard rocks in Geology before going for studies in Petroleum Engineering.
“In our setting, we do not really prioritize things that will add more value regarding the oil industry to our country, so it is going to be very different for any University or the Government to under write the cost for offering a full degree program in oil and Gas or other petroleum related courses.”
This story was produced by Mae Azango in collaboration with the Thomson Reuters Foundation/New Narratives Liberia Oil Reporting Project, which is part of the Foundation’s pan-African program Wealth of Nations (wealth-of-nations.org) www.newnarratives.org