As many petroleum companies know to their cost, crude oil is always a strategic asset for producing countries, and when those countries go to war, the companies come under scrutiny.
Latest under the microscope is Talisman Energy Inc., Calgary, forced to deny that its participation in an oil field development in Sudan has helped the Khartoum government finance a civil war that has cost millions of lives and gone on for 16 years.
Talisman is a 25% interest holder in the Greater Nile Oil Project, under which five fields are now producing about 160,000 bo/d, which is exported via pipeline to a Red Sea coast terminal. Talisman's partners are the national oil companies of China, Malaysia, and Sudan.
Dave Mann, spokesman for Talisman, told OGJ that the first cargo of crude oil from the project was loaded on Aug. 31 and that the first royalty payments were made to the Khartoum regime in September.
While producing oil from areas made hostile by politics or the weather is second nature for petroleum companies, PR in war zones is complex.
Talisman found itself having to deny claims by churches, human rights groups, and US Sec. of State Madeleine Albright that it is exacerbating the war in Sudan and that Canada is turning a blind eye to atrocities.
Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy discussed the allegations with Talisman and plans to send a fact-finding mission to Sudan. Meanwhile, Mann complained of the spread of misinformation about Sudan and "allegations of forced relocation on our oil field."
A United Nations report published on Nov. 17 gave details of fighting that it claimed has resulted in the flight of 3,000-4,000 civilians towards southern Sudan, after government forces cleared an area around the oil fields with the help of bombers, helicopter gunships, and artillery.
"If there was any forced relocation," said Mann, "to the best of our knowledge, it has not occurred on our oil field. I have been there, and it was surrounded by swampland. People do not live in those areas.
"We are a moral and ethical company, and we will do the right thing. Right now, we believe what we are doing in Sudan is very ethical and in the best interests of the people of Sudan. If something happens to change our mind from a credible source, we will consider it."
Martin Yak, a former Sudanese senior government official, who once lived near the oil fields but now lives in Calgary, said the area at that time was thickly populated, with 400,000 people in the region.
Yak said that, in 1980, when Chevron Corp. was active in the area, locals were paid 2,000 Sudanese pounds to move out. Yak left Sudan 4 years ago.
Talisman CEO Jim Buckee recently took a group of North American analysts and journalists on an aerial tour of the oil fields. He pointed out the tracks of seismic lines laid down 25 years ago by Chevron. He argued that, if the seismic lines were still visible, so would be any evidence of enforced evacuation.
Buckee says there were no permanent villages in the area, and the suggestion that there is a need to move people was far-fetched. He said he was troubled by a deep gulf between western perceptions of Sudan and his company's view of the country.