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Black gold may be the end of the peace process

The Norwegian company Seabird is involved in oil exploration outside occupied Western Sahara. If they find oil, it is bad news for the Sahrawis.


By: Bjørn Grimstad Early Morning 1. December 2014 ticks in an email to Erik Hagen, general manager of the Western Sahara Support Committee. There are activists in the Western Sahara Resource Watch (WSRW) organization who report that a ship named "Harrier Explorer" is zigzagging in a small sea area between Las Palmas and Western Sahara's coastline. Hagen searches the ship on the Marine Traffic website, knowing that Moroccan oil authorities have in recent years awarded licenses to international oil companies in this area. 'Shit. There are Norwegians again, ”he writes back to WSRW. The owner of the ship is the Norwegian seismic company Seabird Exploration. Against international law. After the liberation from Spain in 1975, the country was immediately occupied by Morocco. This led to a conflict between the occupiers from the north and the Sahrawis, the people who have Western Sahara as their haunt. Despite frequent peace talks between Moroccan governments and the Sahrawi liberation movement Polisario, the occupation remains a reality. Erik Hagen fears oil exploration will make the situation in the country more difficult. "A possible oil discovery in Western Sahara will make it even less likely that Morocco will want to enter into serious peace talks under the auspices of the UN. The country does not produce oil itself, and has large annual deficits in the state budget, "says Hagen to Ny Tid. International conventions emphatically state that resource extraction in occupied territory is prohibited, and Moroccan activity in Western Sahara is therefore met with international condemnation. Several Norwegian companies have also experienced this. When the Norwegian seismic company TGS-Nopec in 2002 took on an assignment on behalf of the oil companies Kerr-McGee and Total, it led to several articles in the national press. Around 20 shareholders, including several Norwegian municipalities, withdrew from the company. TGS-Nopec had to issue a public apology. To create awareness that Seabird made money on assignments in the occupied territories, Hagen took some calls to the national media. The hope was that Seabird would be pressured to cancel the mission and withdraw from Western Sahara. But it should turn out not to be so simple. Near bankruptcy. The last year's steadily falling oil price has meant that assignments in the international oil industry have decreased drastically. During 2014, Seabird was forced to put two of its eight seismic vessels ashore in Farsund. "Market conditions in 2014 made this year extremely challenging," concludes CEO Dag Reynolds in Seabird's annual report, which was published on March 26. In September, the company failed to meet its $ 14,9 million loan obligations, and the company had to ask the Oslo Stock Exchange to stop all trading in the company's shares. It was urgent to present a refinancing plan that investors could accept. Seabird was on the verge of bankruptcy. A few weeks later, a tender arrives for Dag Reynolds' desk: a mission to shoot seismic somewhere outside Morocco. The assignment was worth two million dollars, a relatively small size in the oil industry. But for Seabird, all income was vital. "We had a boat going past that area, and the geographical description was offshore Morocco. In the first instance, you answer that you are interested in the tender, then you discuss the commercial, and then you get an assignment. We did no further research on what and where, "says Reynolds to Ny Tid. The block to which the assignment is linked is called Foum Ognit Offshore and was awarded to the South African company New Age (African Global Energy) in December 2013, with Swiss Glencore Exstrata and Moroccan Onhym as partners. What Reynolds or the company's men in Oslo would have found out if they had carried out further investigations, is that this block is not located in Morocco, but across the border into the occupied Western Sahara. However, such investigations were not part of Seabird's tendering procedures. Reynold says he was also unaware of the situation in Western Sahara when the contract was signed. "A faint bell rang when I heard about it. But this is referred to as a forgotten conflict, and for me it was unfortunately just that, "says Reynolds. Not forbidden. Following tips from a journalist in Dagbladet in early December, Dag Reynolds contacted the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to check whether the company had in fact violated international law by conducting seismic in Western Sahara. They could state that the assignment is not technically illegal, but that they call for caution. Reynolds informed the company's board and its chairman, former Orkla and Storebrand CEO Åge Korsvold, of the situation. At this point, "Harrier Explorer" was well on its way to mapping the disputed seabed, and the company chose to continue seismic firing. "We should not have done this, because we knew we were doing something wrong. But we ended up in a pinch and felt that we could not leave the contract, because we were in the middle of a refinancing agreement and on the verge of bankruptcy, "says Reynolds. He further claims that if Seabird had been in a situation with greater financial muscle, they would have acted differently. But the downturn in the oil industry had forced the bankrupt company into a corner where they had to make a difficult choice. "Had we broken the contract, the oil company would have hired someone else to do the job, and then we would have had to pay the additional costs for their mobilization and demobilization to the site. If we had said no, we would have perished, "he says. Reynolds promises not to shoot seismic in Western Sahara again. If there is a tender from Morocco again, the company will make sure to have systems that ensure that they end up on the right side of the border, he claims. "We lie down and change the routines so that this does not happen again. It feels very uncomfortable to have been involved in supporting an occupying force, "he says. On March 2 this year, the American oil company Kosmos Energy was able to report the results of the first test drilling on the Western Saharan shelf. They found gas, but too little to make it viable. Seabird's seismic was fired on the neighboring block to the north. Will the results reveal the big gas pocket? Same line. For many years and changing governments, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has given roughly the same answer to Norwegian companies wondering whether they can conduct business in Western Sahara: Norway is in line with the UN, based on then-Justice Hans Corell's answer to the Security Council in 2002. Like previous governments, we advise against business activities or other activities in the area that are not in accordance with the interests of the local population, "writes State Secretary Bård Glad Pedersen in an e-mail to Ny Tid. "We do this because the unresolved status of Western Sahara means that the utilization of resources in the area must, according to international law, take place in accordance with the wishes and interests of the local population. The government expects Norwegian companies to show social responsibility when they invest abroad. If Norwegian companies choose to invest and run businesses in areas where the Ministry of Foreign Affairs advises against this, they take on a significant responsibility, "he concludes.

"But we ended up in a squabble and felt like we couldn't get out of the contract." Dag Reynolds

Fear new war. The appearance of Morocco and international companies in Western Sahara is well known to the Sahrawi. Late last week, women, children and men in the refugee camp Auserd in Algeria held a peaceful demonstration against the companies supplying natural resources in their home country. After the occupation in 1975, many of them fled to neighboring countries in the east. There, there are still around 165000 refugees living in miserable conditions, waiting for a solution to the conflict. Erik Hagen of the Western Sahara Support Committee fears what will happen if the current situation continues. “The Saharawis know very well their rights to be from a former colonial area. There are over a hundred UN resolutions affirming their right to self-determination. The consequences of the oil spill are that the Sahrawis are getting even worse. Morocco has nothing to do with this oil. It is perceived as extremely unfair, and it is a matter of how long they will continue to protest with peaceful means, ”concludes Hagen.

Grimstad is a freelancer.

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