As domestic energy companies venture ever farther from the United States to find oil and natural gas, the Tulane Energy Institute is hoping to forge a partnership with Africa.
The continent is already a major fuel exporter to the United States, with Nigeria alone supplying roughly 10 percent of the oil consumed in this country. Continuing political tensions with other oil-rich regions, such as the Middle East and Russia, make Africa an increasingly significant player in America's quest for energy.
The prevalence of corrupt governments and unruly rebel groups, however, have made a dangerous business of producing fuel from African territory. The Tulane University Center for African Resource Development would attempt to smooth commerce with the continent by inviting African government workers to observe energy practices in the United States. The workers would spend time at Tulane's energy institutes in New Orleans and Houston, the U.S. Institute for Peace in Washington, D.C., and industrial sites scattered along the Gulf of Mexico.
U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., planted the seed of the idea for the center, said Tulane Energy Institute Director Geoffrey Parker.
"She knew the oil trade relationship with Africa was only going to grow," he said.
Last month, Landrieu discussed the plan with leaders from 11 African nations, the World Bank, federal agencies and several international energy conglomerates. Expected to run like a fellowship program for African oil and gas regulators, the institute has raised about $1 million and could begin hosting its first visitors next year.
"America needs to ensure that it has many diverse and secure energy sources, and our partners in Africa will be a part of that energy mix for the foreseeable future," Landrieu said in a statement. "Meanwhile, these nations need to attract investment and develop strong ties with U.S. technology innovators."
Oil riches underlie some of the poorest regions of Africa, and politicians and economists often point to fuel production as a way for nations to earn money for badly needed public services. Yet most of the Africans who live around active oilfields have not profited, their poverty made worse by pollution from spills and factories that disrupt agrarian lifestyles, said Antonia Juhasz, an author who has studied the international oil trade.
"One of the biggest concerns in western Africa is the willingness of U.S. companies to align themselves with brutal governments and militaries to protect their operations," Juhasz said. "What you wouldn't want to see is an institute that is solely focused on increasing the presence of U.S. business in Africa without a very strong attention to the very difficult history and existing tension in the region."
Parker said human rights will definitely be part of the conversation at the institute. Oil and gas will likely be the focus of the institute, but Tulane also plans to offer programs in renewable energy and more divergent themes, such as public health.
"It's all about transparency and trying to make sure that the benefits of these industries are not just concentrated in a few elite, because that often ends up leading to conflict," said Parker, who forsees the institute as exerting the most influence over nations such as Ghana, which is just beginning to open its borders to international fuel production. Countries such as Nigeria and Angola have been active drilling destinations for years.
Tidewater Inc., the world's biggest operator of offshore supply vessels, has firsthand experience with the hostility oil interests have sparked in Africa. With many of its boats stationed off the coast of Nigeria, Tidewater has had to deal with kidnappings and vessel hijackings.
"Sometimes they're thugs, and sometimes they're militant groups," Tidewater spokesman Joe Bennett said. "You move very carefully when operating in places like that."
The process of negotiating with African governments to retrieve stolen supplies or protect kidnapped employees usually involves a "long, drawn-out affair" that Bennett declined to discuss.
"There are places over there that just don't have developed laws," he said. "It's frustrating when you want to operate in an ethical and efficient way."
To Bennet, Tulane's African business center sounded like a good idea.
"There's so much room for improvement," he said. "Anything anybody can do to improve the situation is helpful."