Kerr-McGee to continue work off Morocco

Eric Watkins
Senior Correspondent

LOS ANGELES, Oct. 25 -- Kerr-McGee Corp., Oklahoma City, has expressed its intention to continue geophysical reconnaissance off southern Morocco despite threats to its operations from the Polisario Front (PF), a Western Saharan independence movement.

Kerr-McGee spokesman John Christiansen said the company is continuing with the reconnaissance permit it has from the Office National de Recherches et d'Exploitations Pétrolières, the state oil company in Morocco, which lies north of Western Sahara.

Christiansen said the company was carrying out geophysical and geological research in the offshore area, as permitted according to licenses issued by the Moroccan authorities in 2001 and confirmed by subsequent international authority.

"The United Nations undersecretary for legal affairs confirmed the legality of the permit in 2002," Christiansen said. "It was renewed in 2003, 2004, and again in 2005. The research activities allow us to evaluate the area's potential. Until we have completed the analysis, we cannot speculate on future activities."

Operations at risk
The PF on Oct. 12 warned Kerr-McGee and its partners, Pioneer Natural Resources Co. and Kosmos Energy LLP, that their personnel could be at risk if they proceeded with plans to drill on the Boujdour Block.

Kerr-McGee currently has permits to explore using only methods such as seismic data acquisition. Drilling would require separate permits later.

In a statement, the PF underlined that view, saying that drilling would raise tension in Western Sahara, which Morocco annexed in 1975, immediately after the territory gained independence from Spain.

"The government of the SADR [Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic] further wishes to state that it cannot guarantee the safety of any individual involved in the intended operations of Kerr-McGee," the movement said. The PF, which fought a 16-year-long guerrilla war with Morocco for independence, set up SADR in 1976.

"Existing cease-fire arrangements do not envisage such operations in a war zone, and consequently the Saharawi army must carefully consider its position and response if these inflammatory activities proceed," the statement added.

Kerr-McGee said it did not believe any of its efforts would stand in the way of the peace process. "We support the ongoing efforts of the UN to find a permanent and amicable situation to the Western Sahara solution," said Christiansen.

The 27 million acre Boujdour Block, awarded in 2001, lies in disputed territory between Mauritania and Morocco on the north African coast of the Atlantic Ocean.

At the time the exploration rights were granted, Western Sahara authorities, referring to the area as SADR, said, "These exploration awards, made by the Moroccan occupying regime under Moroccan law, will have no legitimacy under the future independent Saharawi State (OGJ, June 24, 2002, p. 38)."

In 2004, Total SA of France, which also contracted with the Moroccan government in 2001 to explore off the Saharan shores, withdrew citing "business" reasons.

Earlier, the geophysical contractor TGS-NOPEC also abandoned its interests in the area. Under contract to carry out research for Total and Kerr-McGee, and with 85% of its survey completed, TGS bowed to intense grassroots pressure in 2003.

TGS issued a public statement announcing that it had "decided not to undertake any new projects in Western Sahara without a change in political developments."

Contact Eric Watkins at hippalus@spidernet.com.cy.

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