Hunt for 'New' Oil; Administration Sees Promise in West Africa

Article excerpt

Byline: Timothy Burn, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

U.S. oil companies have been drilling off the west coast of Africa for years, but as major players like ChevronTexaco and ExxonMobil continue to strike massive oil deposits in these deep waters, the Bush administration has taken notice.

The United States has been scouring the planet for new sources of oil beyond the Middle East. The September 11 terrorist attacks and the war in Iraq convinced the administration that the United States must move quickly to find new foreign oil partners.

What better place to look than an oil-rich region that lies just 4,500 miles from the East Coast, with an unobstructed sea route to U.S. ports, a region that could supply as much as a quarter of U.S. oil imports?

West Africa is rapidly emerging as a key strategic outpost for President Bush's twin policy goals of taking the war on terror far away from U.S. borders and breaking the Arab stranglehold on world oil prices.

Oil industry analysts caution that while boosting world production could ease prices, there is no untapped region in the world that has nearly as many reserves below ground as the Middle East.

But as the price of oil and geopolitics become more entangled amid turmoil in the Middle East, the Bush administration - from the State Department to the Pentagon - is finding more reasons to become actively engaged in West Africa."The U.S. is always looking for alternative sources of oil. We need to find sources that we can depend on, and certainly the Gulf of Guinea is one of those areas," a top State Department official said.

"But oil is not the driving force in this region. Clearly, shoring up security in these regions helps us in our global war on terrorism, which is a major linchpin of our current foreign policy."

The State Department is actively trying to further "democratize" the nations around the Gulf of Guinea, many struggling under rampant poverty and political unrest, despite controlling tens of billions of barrels of oil.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon and NATO have begun a strategic reassessment of the region in light of the United States' growing interest in steady supplies of oil, and signs that the current unrest in the region - which has a heavy Muslim population - is a ripe target for organizing efforts of the al Qaeda terrorist network.

Currently, the United States gets about 14 percent of its oil from Africa, with major producers like Nigeria and Angola leading the way. It is estimated that by 2020 the United States could receive a quarter of its oil from this region. By contrast, 30 percent of America's oil imports come from Canada and Mexico, and 26 percent comes from the Persian Gulf.

Several other West African countries - like Chad, Congo-Brazzaville, Equatorial Guinea and Sao Tome and Principe - are emerging as new and potentially strong oil producers. West African oil production, currently at 3.5 million barrels per day, could top 6 million barrels per day in the next decade, according to Michael Rodgers, senior director for PFC Energy in Washington.

"There is no doubt that over the next decade there will be growing production in West Africa," Mr. Rodgers said. "Anytime you have more oil coming onto the market it has the net effect of helping to keep prices down."

Expanding pool

Business is booming around West Africa for major oil companies, which are exploiting recent advances in deepwater drilling technology to tap new fields under the ocean floor.

ExxonMobil announced July 31 that it made its 14th deepwater discovery off the coast of Angola. The Irving, Texas, company said the discovery boosts its oil resources in the region to an estimated 10.5 billion barrels.

ChevronTexaco, based in San Roman, Calif., is producing oil in Nigeria and Angola totaling more than 960,000 bpd. The company has been making impressive deepwater discoveries along West Africa since the late 1990s. …