Oil drilling plan stirs hornets’ nest in Western Sahara

Drilling rig26 November 2013, News Wires – Plans by Kosmos Energy and partner Cairn Energy to drill a well next year in a Moroccan-licensed block in the Western Sahara continue to provoke intense interest among oil companies excited by the disputed territory’s offshore potential, as well as political debate among the traditional protagonists.

The territory is Moroccan-controlled, but officially under United Nations mandate, and debate centres on a legal opinion issued by UN general counsel Hans Corell in 2002, which stated that exploration and extraction of mineral resources in Western Sahara would be illegal “only if conducted in disregard of the needs and interests of the people of that territory”.

This has allowed Morocco’s Office Cherifien des Phosphates to maintain high-grade phosphate output from its Phosboucraa subsidiary, which was taken over when Spain pulled out in 1975 and is a major employer in the region.

However, the Corell judgment – which one official told African Energy, “we’ve all been re-reading recently” – has been generally interpreted as excluding new E&P work.

The Polisario Front liberation movement on 21 November formally condemned the Cap Boujdour move, which senior official Emhamed Khadad called “a matter of law, morality and investment risk”.

While “open to ethical international business”, the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic was against “exploiting the sovereign resources of the Saharawi people without their consent while we remain under an illegal occupation”.

This brought “great uncertainty and the sure eventuality of future reparations [compensation] claims”. Khadad said the law was “quite clear” about petroleum development: “Western Sahara remains occupied as a matter of international law and so the taking of petroleum is clearly a war crime.”

Former UN special representative Francesco Bastagli observed that “Morocco has been engaged with the phosphates and the fisheries and now with the oil in a practice that is not legal under international law, which is confirmed in the 2002 opinion”. Bastagli told Agence France Presse, “the oil companies, rather than investing now, which is frankly unethical, should maybe lobby with their governments so that they make a real effort to legalise whatever status the Western Sahara should have.” With the territory’s sovereignty undecided, it was not for Morocco or its partners to decide whether the exploitation of resources was benefiting the Saharawi people.

– African Arguments

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