US moves to secure African oil supplies

Sep 30, 2002 02:00 AM

As the US war machine gears up for action in the Middle East its policy makers have quietly begun a different sort of campaign: A calm offensive in Africa. Behind both of these very different exercises lies one common element, some would say the key defining element in US strategic thinking: both regions have large reserves of oil. One year after the September 11 attacks cast a giant stone into the already troubled waters of America's relations in the Middle East, Africa is shaping up as its energy supplier of choice.
The White House, driven on by an oil lobby ever hungry for new opportunities, has seized upon the Atlantic waters of the Gulf of Guinea as a zone of special strategic interest, analysts say. "With the attacks, the Americans realised how vulnerable their reliance on Middle East oil made them. They're turning towards us to diversify supply," says an aide to a central African leader.

While African fields currently account for only 6 % of the world's known oil reserves, the continent has perhaps the best chance of rapid expansion. Of the 8 bn barrels of crude oil reserves discovered by prospectors in 2001, seven were in the offshore fields of the Gulf of Guinea, on west and central Africa's Atlantic coast.
Gulf of Guinea crude is low in sulphur and so easy to convert to motor fuel. It lies a short, safe sea journey from the United States. US firms are already well represented in the region. Politically, the region is also promising for US planners keen to access cheaper, more plentiful oil in the years to come.
Angola and Cameroon are not OPEC members and not subject to the cartel's quota system. Nigeria, still Africa's biggest oil producer despite increasing competition for the title from Angola, has been sounded out by private US lobbyists about leaving the organisation. Against this background, industry experts predict that the proportion of America's oil sourced in Africa will grow from 15 % today to 25 % by 2020.

World oil consumption is expected to rise by 59 % over the same period. This month US President George Bush broke new ground, rolling out the White House red carpet for 10 central African heads of state in recognition of their work on behalf of peace. US Secretary of State Colin Powell had toured oil-rich Angola and Gabon. US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Walter Kansteiner, who visited Angola and Nigeria in July, is expected in Gabon.
From there he is to visit the small but strategically significant Gulf of Guinea island country of Sao Tome and Principe, home to fewer than 150,000 people. Senior US military personnel have recently visited the tiny country to discuss basing a US naval fleet there, to protect its interests in the region. Despite the attractions and the rewards of investing in African oil, the region does present some political difficulties however, starting with the territorial disputes that divide it.

Nigeria has already settled disputes over its sea borders -- vital in a region where most future oil production is expected -- with Sao Tome and Principe and with Equatorial Guinea. Now it is waiting for the judgement of the International Court of Justice in The Hague on its dispute with Cameroon over the Bakassi Peninsula, a 40 mile (70 km) long spit of swamp jutting out into the Gulf of Guinea.
The end of some of Africa's most bitter wars could also open up new horizons for ambitious oil companies. US relations with Angola -- which already provided just less than a tenth of America's oil -- and with its onetime Marxist President Jose Eduardo dos Santos have improved since the death in February of rebel leader and American protege Jonas Savimbi. Ties with Sudan have also improved, despite the US sanctions levied against Khartoum because of its supposed support for international terrorism. The United States weighs heavily in peace talks between Khartoum and a southern rebellion.

If peace comes to Sudan, its 1.25 bn barrels in known reserves could triple as firms gains access to the disputed south. With hope on so many political horizons, the biggest threat to US oil supplies could come from the internal stability of states in an underdeveloped region.
For that reason, many of the projects currently under way come with demands for democracy and good governance attached. For example, 72 % of local receipts from America's largest investment in Africa -- the $ 3.7 bn Chad to Cameroon oil pipeline and attached developments -- have been tagged for education, health and infrastructure projects.

Source: Vanguard
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