In December 2006, three Irish oil firms successfully negotiated a highly controversial reconnaissance licence with the Moroccan state oil company ONHYM (Office National des Hydrocarbures et des Mines). Under this licence, Island Oil, Longreach and San Leon started scanning the soil for oil in an area near Smara, occupied Western Sahara. The block of 21,807 square kilometers was dubbed the “Zag” basin.
The work under the reconnaissance licence has been completed this year. An aeromagnetic survey indicated some structures, including a 60 km long anticline which potentially holds hydrocarbon reserves.
Both Island Oil & Gas and San Leon have now officially announced the conversion of the reconnaissance licence into a full exploration licence, "which was signed on the 18th of June in Rabat and was approved for release by ONHYM on the 17th July”.
“This is excellent news for Island Oil & Gas. We are now moving forward on three fronts in Morocco, which has become a key area of focus. We are committed to what we believe to be one of the most attractive emerging petroleum provinces in the world", said Paul Griffiths, Island's CEO.
However, those "provinces" are in fact a disputed area, one that has been on the UN's list of Non-Self-Governing Territories for quite some time: Western Sahara.
The full exploration licence could possibly entail the commencement of exploratory drilling in the Zag basin. According to the UN Legal Office, such activities would violate international law. "If further exploration and exploitation activities were to proceed in disregard of the interests and wishes of the people of Western Sahara, they would be in violation of the principles of international law applicable to mineral resource activities in Non-Self-Governing Territories", the UN Legal opinion concluded.
The timing of this licence-upgrade is somewhat dubious, coinciding with the resumed peace-talks between the Polisario and Morocco. The actions of Island Oil and partners impede an already tense political process aimed at resolving this protracted conflict about sovereignty in Western Sahara. It seems the Irish oil firms have already decided which horse to bet on.
Read more: Escalation to full exploration in Smara Polisario protests Morocco's oil provocations
Morocco occupies the major part of its neighbouring country, Western Sahara. Entering into business deals with Moroccan companies or authorities in the occupied territories gives an impression of political legitimacy to the occupation. It also gives job opportunities to Moroccan settlers and income to the Moroccan government. Western Sahara Resource Watch demands foreign companies leave Western Sahara until a solution to the conflict is found.
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