afrol News, 23 January - According to news reports, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan is to assess the legal aspects of oil exploration off the disputed coast of Western Sahara by mid-February. The Moroccan oil deal caused widespread international protest last year.
According to a report by 'Upstream' this week, the US explorer Kerr-McGee and the French oil company Total-FinaElf will know by mid-February whether Mr Annan regards two technical reconnaissance agreements signed last year with Rabat for acreage off Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara as contravening international law. 'Upstream' did not state any sources.
Late last year Moroccan government allocated TotalFinaElf the entire southern maritime zone south of Kerr-McGee's own Boujdour Offshore permit off Western Sahara, which runs right up to the Moroccan border.
The publication of the deal between the Moroccan government, illegally occupying Western Sahara, and Kerr-McGee and Total-FinaElf in October 2001 caused massive protest. Sahrawi President Mohamed Abdelaziz in November last year wrote to UN envoy James Baker III, warning of dire consequences if the US and French firms began prospecting for oil.
Abdelaziz urged the UN to intervene to dissuade these firms "from any activity in a territory which does not belong to Morocco." Lashing out at the agreements, he called the contracts "a provocation" worsening an already worrisome situation.
After these heavy protests from POLISARIO and its supporters, UN experts started looking into the legality of the oil licences in November last year. The POLISARIO expect Annan's office to present a full report to the UN Security Council debunking Rabat's right to licence this acreage.
POLISARIO also has contacted the US government to protest the Moroccan deal. "We sent a message to President George Bush on behalf of our president, Mohammed Abdelaziz, condemning the awards and also wrote directly to UN envoy James Baker warning of the consequences of inaction," says the POLISARIO's representative to the US, Mouloud Said.
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.
Earlier operations abandoned
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 Upstream, Sahrawi media and afrol archives.