Western Sahara
Protests against "illegal" oil exploration off Western Sahara

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Saharawi President Abdelaziz

«The contracts signed are a provocation.»

President Mohamed Abdelaziz

afrol News, 28 October - With the signing of two large contracts last week between international oil companies and the Moroccan government to explore promising oil fields off the coast of Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara increases, international protests are being voiced. French and UK organisations yesterday called the agreements "scandalous".

The French association of friends of the Sahrawi Republic (AARASD) yesterday "strongly denounced" the "scandalous agreements" between international oil companies and the Moroccan state regarding the sale of exploration rights off the Western Sahara coast.

Also The Western Sahara Campaign UK yesterday condemned two oil contracts between TotalElfFina and Kerr McGee to exploit the oil resources of the territorial waters of Western Sahara. Under the contracts, TotalFinaElf may explore 115, 000 kilometre square area off the coast of Dakhla Western Sahara for a 12 month period. Kerr McGee signed a deal to explore 110, 000 kilometre square area of deep water off the northern coast of Western Sahara.

President of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, Mohamed Abdelaziz, said Wednesday that contracts signed by oil companies Kerr McGee and TotalFinaElf to explore the oil resources offshore Western Sahara were a "provocation." The President appealed to the United Nations to annul the contracts with Morocco because they violate international law.

Pro-Sahrawi pressure groups and President Abdelaziz claim this on behalf of the UN refusal to recognise the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara and the territory's status as a colony. They refer to a 1991 UN resolution, stating that "the exploitation and plundering of colonial and non-self-governing territories by foreign economic interests, in violation of the relevant resolutions of the United Nations is a grave threat to the integrity and prosperity of those Territories." 

According to the US Geological Survey of World Energy, year 2000, estimated oil and gas resources off the Saharan coast are substantial and the probability (including both geologic and accessibility probabilities) of finding lucrative oil and gas fields is very high. While it is assessed that Western Sahara has relative large and probable offshore oil resources, numbers for Morocco proper are low and insecure. 

Richard Stanforth, spokesperson of the Western Sahara Campaign UK, however comments that in signing the contracts the companies are "trampling over the basic Human Rights of the Sahrawi people. The contracts are an attempt to legitimise the brutal Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara" "Most Sahrawi people from Western Sahara are languishing in refugee camps struggling to survive. They will not see a penny of this money. All this money will go to help Morocco build up its army in Western Sahara."

AARASD adds that "as the territory not is autonomous, one cannot accept these resources being alienated at the benefit of the occupying state." If the international community lets this happen, it would be "to accept the occupation of Western Sahara".

The Paris-based oil multi TotalFinaElf last week announced that it "has signed a reconnaissance contract with the Moroccan state oil company, Office National de Recherches et d'Exploitations Pétrolières (ONAREP), for the Dakhla Offshore zone. Located offshore the town of Dakhla, the zone covers an area of 115,000 km2." Dakhla was the capital of the Spanish Western Sahara colony before 1975.

According to a TotalFinaElf release, "the contract covers an initial period of 12 months, during which regional geological and geophysical studies will be undertaken in order to assess the petroleum potential of the zone. These studies will complement the knowledge base that TotalFinaElf has been building-up over several years along the length of the Atlantic coast of Africa.2

The American oil company Kerr-McGee is far more restrictive on its information. The company's website only informs that Kerr-McGee is involved in "focusing on international deepwater opportunities offshore ... Morocco, ... where it has lease positions". In November last year, the US company has acquired 33.33 percent interest in the 3 million-acre Cap Draa Haute Mer exploration license offshore Morocco.

Earlier operations abandoned
According to information gathered by UK Western Sahara Campaign, previous attempts to explore Western Sahara oil resources have all been abandoned due to the political risks. Gulf Oil, WB Grace, Texaco and Standard Oil were considering a joint venture with the Spanish authorities in the 1960s. 

In the second half of the 1960's the US companies Pan American Hispano Oil, Caltex, Gulf Oil and Phillips undertook an exploration of 2443.192 hectares of Western Saharan desert which led to the discovery of a small layer of 100 km at Faim el Oued. In total 27 strata of oil were discovered in 1964. 

In 1978, offshore blocks were awarded to Philips and BP but were quickly abandoned because of the war. In the basin between El Ayoun, Western Saharan capital and Tarfaya (Morocco) bituminous shale was discovered with reserves of 100 million barrels of crude but this can only profitably be extracted if oil prices rise to US$ 40 a barrel. Shell signed a contract to build a treatment works in 1981 but the work was never completed.

Sources: Based on UK Sahara Campaign, AARASD, afrol archives, etc.

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