Norwatch: Norwegian Oil Industry in Occupied Western Sahara

A huge Norwegian research vessel has in secret travelled to the coast of occupied Western Sahara. This weekend the Norwegian company Fugro-Geoteam started a controversial operation to carry out oil exploration, in defiance of the advice of the UN and the Norwegian government. Norwatch, 12 January 2009.

Published 12 January 2009

By Erik Hagen
12 January 2009
Read the story on Norwatch's homepages.

Norwatch has discovered that the Norwegian seismic survey company Fugro-Geoteam is now taking part in an operation in occupied Western Sahara. The undertaking is being carried out for Moroccan authorities that are exploring for oil offshore the coast of the occupied territory. The company has confirmed the engagement but does not wish to release details or comments.

Morocco does not have the right to look for oil and gas in Western Sahara, so long as it is in the disregard of the wishes and interests of the people of occupied Western Sahara, the Sahrawis. UN legal experts established this in 2002.

The Norwegian government also takes a critical stance to such operations in Western Sahara and advises companies against engaging there. In 2005 the Norwegian Government Pension Fund expelled the American energy company Kerr-McGee from its portfolio because of oil activity in Western Sahara and referred to the American engagement as “a particularly serious violation of fundamental ethical norms”.

But this hasn’t stopped Fugro-Geoteam from proceeding with oil exploration in exactly the same oil block as the one in which Kerr-McGee worked.

Norwatch first received confirmation of the operation from Spanish authorities, and when Norwatch made Fugro-Geoteam aware that a story would be published about the engagement, they confirmed their involvement. But they still will not comment.

The exploration started on the weekend
When the Pension-Fund-blacklisted company Kerr-McGee left Western Sahara after strong criticism from a range of investors, its smaller partner, Dallas-based Kosmos Energy, took over. Kosmos plans to drill in Western Sahara in a few years, in spite of both UN statements and protests from the government in exile. The president of Western Sahara’s exiled government has called Morocco’s oil plans a violation of the truce in the area. Several observers call the Moroccan plans a threat to security in the region.

For a long time, therefore, it has been unclear whether little Kosmos Energy wished to continue the exploration in the occupied territory. This can now be confirmed by Norwatch.

It is the Norwegian seismic company Fugro-Geoteam that has become an important pawn of the Americans. Fugro-Geoteam, a firm with 50 years’ experience in geological surveys in Norway, may carry out the last and most important analyses before the drillings may be started next year, in violation of international law.

Fugro is using the world’s largest seismic ship, Geo Caribbean, for its operation. Fugro built the boat last year, with a price tag of one billion Norwegian kroner (105 million euros). The trip to Western Sahara is the ship’s maiden voyage. After the vessel was completed at Bergen Mekaniske Verksted shipyard in November, it stopped in Rotterdam at the beginning of December 2008, to be baptised.

On 17 December the ship left Rotterdam port, and a few days ago it arrived at the Canary Islands. On Thursday afternoon the ship was just south of Grand Canary Island, about to leave Spanish waters, heading south toward Western Sahara. Fugro’s chartered supply vessel was last reported on Thursday evening, also on the way south from Grand Canary, 50 km north of Kosmos Energy’s oil block.

It is therefore likely that the exploration started this weekend and that Geo Caribbean will end the search sometime toward the end of February. Half of the American company’s oil block is located on the continental shelf, while the other half is in deep waters. The Fugro work is probably to take place on the part that lies in deep waters.

Much indicates that Fugro-Geoteam and their partners wished to keep the operation unknown to the public. None of the partners have wanted to comment on the operation or to supply details about what the operation involves.

There is no information on the web pages of either Fugro in Norway or Fugro’s parent company in the Netherlands. Nor is there any information on the pages of Thor Offshore of Faroe Islands, which owns the small supply vessel that will follow Geo Caribbean, or on the pages of American Kosmos Energy, which has the oil license. Even the pages of the Moroccan state-owned oil company ONHYM, which has awarded the license, remain silent.

“Fugro has no right to give out information about the seismic project. For more information about the case, the only source can be Kosmos Energy”, Hans Meyer, managing director of Fugro-Geoteam, wrote in an e-mail to Norwatch on Saturday afternoon.

But Kosmos is not providing any answers. Norwatch was already on Friday refused by Kosmos, which asked Norwatch to contact the above-mentioned partners.

“If you want information about this, you must contact Fugro-Geoteam or Moroccan authorities. As a private company, we are not obliged to answer queries about our operations”, Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in Kosmos Energy, Greg Dunlevy, told Norwatch on Friday.

He refused to answer any questions about the explorations and said that they do not need to answer questions from the media.

Thor Offshore of the Faroe Islands confirmed to Norwatch that their supply vessel is chartered by Fugro-Geoteam for “an operation” but would not comment any further on the issue.

Even the crews onboard the ships seem to have been muzzled. Sergio Ramírez, an academic at the University of Las Palmas and active in the campaign group Western Sahara Resource Watch, met two members from the crew on Thor Offshore’s supply vessel Thor Omega in Las Palmas harbour on Thursday. The video below was taken by Ramírez. He also produced several photos of the vessel.

(Article continues beneath the video)

“I asked the crew about where they were going to use the vessel. No matter how I formulated the question, they would not disclose what country they were travelling to. Each time they answered “Africa” evasively. And when I was going to take the picture, those who were standing in front of the vessel ran away, so as not to be photographed,” Ramírez said on the phone to Norwatch.

Until Thursday the supply vessel from the Faroe Islands rested in the harbour of Las Palmas.

Norwatch cannot find a single news release about the case in the Moroccan media, which otherwise are very eager to report on the development of the country’s oil sector. Repeated enquiries to the state-owned Moroccan oil company ONHYM have not yet resulted in an answer.

On Friday afternoon Norwatch received a confirmation from Spanish authorities that Geo Caribbean is participating in the oil industry in “Moroccan” waters, far south of Grand Canary. The same Spanish authorities also confirmed that the ship Thor Omega will travel in shuttle traffic between Fugro’s seismic vessel and Las Palmas to transport crew and supplies.

Critical international law expert
The engagement will prepare what UN legal experts define as a violation of international law. The analysis that the UN authored in 2002 concerned the legality of petroleum industry in the same ocean region as where Fugro-Geoteam has now started exploration.

The person responsible for the UN legal opinion, UN’s former Under-Secretary General for Legal Affairs, the Swede Hans Corell, is critical of the continued Moroccan policy with regard to the use of natural resources in Western Sahara.

“In terms of the situation as it is now, no activity connected to the natural resources of Western Sahara can take place unless representatives for the people of Western Sahara are involved in the discussion and have approved the activities”, Hans Corell told Norwatch.

He pointed out that Morocco is not the administrative power of Western Sahara and was clearly critical of the fact that international business participates in the exploration and extraction of natural resources from the region.

“Even though international law is not always directly binding for companies, it still constitutes a foundation upon which the companies must base their ethical evaluations. It would certainly have helped solve the conflict in Western Sahara if the companies had behaved in a socially responsible manner and operated in line with international law”, he said on general terms.

Fugro remains silent
Norwatch has posed a series of questions about the engagement to Fugro-Geoteam, but they refuse to answer. Norwatch has also asked for comments about what the Norwegian company thinks about preparing the grounds for a violation of international law, and whether they agree with the public statements of the Norwegian Ministry of Finance in 2005. That was the year the Ministry sold all its Kerr-McGee shares in the Pension Fund and said that oil exploration in Western Sahara contributes to “undermine the UN peace process” and constitutes “a particularly serious violation of fundamental ethical norms”.

“If there should any questions about Fugro’s standards, we refer to our web pages and our annual report”, Meyer wrote to Norwatch.

But on their web pages there is nothing about the engagement.

Fugro-Geoteam employs about 270 people in Norway, and the main office is in Oslo. The company is a fully owned subsidiary of Fugro Norway, which in turn is fully owned by the Dutch parent company Fugro NV. Geo Caribbean is registered in the Marshall Islands.


Facts: The oil industry in Western Sahara


  • 1975-79: Morocco occupied the major part of Western Sahara, an occupation that was condemned by the UN.
  • 1991: The war between Morocco and the Sahrawi independence movement Polisario ended with a ceasefire, on the premise that a referendum be held for the Western Sahara people in 1992. But it was never held.
  • 2001: Morocco still occupied the major part of Western Sahara and handed out its first two petroleum licences for offshore Western Sahara to the US energy company Kerr-McGee and the French TotalFinaElf (later Total). The Western Sahara government in exile called the initiative a violation of the ceasefire agreement.
  • 2002: The UN’s legal experts said that further oil exploration in Western Sahara would be in violation of international law. Still, the Norwegian seismic survey company TGS-Nopec was engaged to carry out the first seismic surveys. The surveys were to be carried out together with the Norwegian Fugro-Geoteam and the Faroe Islands company Thor Offshore. The Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jan Petersen, criticised the Norwegian involvement. After having received international criticism, all three companies withdrew from further engagement in Western Sahara. 
  • 2004: Total withdrew from Western Sahara, saying there were insufficient possibilities for oil or gas deposits. The smaller, privately owned oil company Kosmos Energy moved in on the ownership side of Kerr-McGee’s Western Sahara block, called the Boujdour block.
    After having sabotaged the UN’s peace process for a referendum in Western Sahara for over a decade, Morocco now refused for the first time to arrange the referendum in Western Sahara. The international community failed to react to the news.
  • 2005: The Norwegian Government Pension Fund divested from Kerr-McGee because its activities constituted “a particularly serious violation of fundamental ethical norms” because they may contribute to “undermine the UN peace process”. Several investors followed suit.
  • 2006: Kerr-McGee left Western Sahara, and the company was later bought up by the US firm Anadarko. Kosmos Energy took over 75% of the Boujdour block, while the Moroccan government oil company ONHYM kept the rest. Kosmos Energy continued close collaboration with Anadarko. Whether the collaboration also involved the Western Sahara surveys remains unknown.
  • January 2009: Kosmos Energy still owns a licence for offshore Western Sahara, being the only foreign firm. Fugro-Geoteam initiates seismic surveys for Kosmos Energy, with the recently built seismic survey vessel Geo Caribbean. At the same time, they charter the supply vessel Thor Omega of the Faroese company Thor Offshore. They did this even though both Fugro and Thor had been criticised for assignments a few years ago, and even though they said they would not do it again. Kosmos Energy plans to drill for oil in a few years, something that could have as a most extreme consequence that the ceasefire could collapse, causing the Sahrawis to resume the war for Western Sahara’s independence. 


Fugro stopped Western Sahara work for lack of consultation

The CEO of the Dutch seismic company that used to work in occupied Western Sahara has now explained their 2009 pullout.
19 June 2012

Fugro surprise party at University of Oslo

When Fugro Norway was to promote itself on the Business days at the University of Oslo on 28 September, they were welcomed with cake. In 2009, Fugro was refused to attend the same event due to their engagement in occupied Western Sahara. Since then, the firm has withdrawn from the occupied territory.

03 October 2010

Seismic services company renounces further Western Sahara involvement

Dutch seismic services firm Fugro NV, and its Norwegian subsidiary Fugro-Geoteam, state they do not want to undertake any more assignments in Western Sahara under the current political situation in the country.

06 May 2010

Sahrawi demonstration on Faroese TV

Faroe Islands national TV ran the Sahrawi demonstration against oil industry in Western Sahara as main story on its evening news 17 March 2009.

20 March 2009