BY SEAN HEALY
US firm Kerr McGee and French oil group TotalFinaElf have won lucrative concessions from the Moroccan government, granting them permission to explore potentially rich oilfields off the coast of occupied Western Sahara.
During an October 4 signing ceremony, energy minister Mustapha Mansouri said the 12-month "reconnaissance contract" with Kerr McGee will cover 110,400 square kilometres in the Boujdour offshore area, located near the Western Sahara's capital of Laayoune.
Kerr-McGee chief Luke Corbett said the company will start reprocessing existing geological data immediately and will look to begin a new seismic acquisition program shortly.
When the contract expires, the company will have the option of coverting it into a petroleum agreement, which would allow it to start production in partnership with the state oil agency ONAREP.
The deal is the first between Morocco and a foreign firm which allows for oil research in Western Sahara and the first which allows a foreign company to seek profits in the territory. Morocco has no oil of its own but is keen to develop a petrochemical industry in its occupied territory.
An unnamed official told the magazine Maghreb Confidential that the TotalFinaElf concession, meanwhile, was awarded both "in recognition of France's presence in Morocco" and for technical reasons "in view of the group's experience in exploring off of Africa's entire Atlantic coast".
The deal will likely complicate years-long negotiations on the status of Western Sahara, occupied by Morocco since 1976.
The state oil agency has warned the Moroccan government that, under the UN agreement on the territory's status, responsibility for oil and minerals would fall "exclusively" to a government elected by the Saharawi people of the territory.
The government believes, however, that if a future Western Saharan government were to be established, it could negotiate a share agreement, on the grounds that Western Sahara would be unable to assume "heavy investment over the long term".
The deal with Kerr McGee has sparked outrage from Western Sahara's exiled government.
Saharawi foreign minister Mohamed Salem Ould Salek "denounced vigorously" the contract and called for the "cancellation" of what he considered an "irregular and reprehensible transaction".
"Morocco does not have sovereignty over Western Sahara to sign this transaction. Only the Saharawi people are entrusted with sovereignty over Western Sahara," he said.
This act constitutes, Ould Salek argued, an "endorsement [of] the annexation of the territory" and "an aggressive act" directed against the Saharawi people for which Kerr-McGee must "assume the [legal] consequences".
Ould Salek warned that the contract would only undermine efforts to hold a referendum on self-determination.
"Morocco is constantly seeking partners to join in its colonial misadventure in Western Sahara", the minister emphasised, warning against "any provocation detrimental to the implementation of the [UN] settlement plan".