Tue, 08 Mar 2005


Australia, East Timor resume oil and gas talks

Associated Press, Canberra

Australia and East Timor resumed talks on Monday on how to carve up billions of dollars worth of oil and gas under the seabed that divides one of the Asia-Pacific's richest nations from one of the region's poorest.

Three days of talks got under way in the Australian capital, Canberra, five months after the acrimonious collapse of the last round of negotiations.

At stake is an estimated US$30 billion in seabed oil and gas royalties.

The negotiations are the third round in a bitter dispute over where to draw the Timor Sea maritime boundary between the two neighbors -- a line that ultimately will decide how much of the revenue each nation gets.

East Timor wants the border in the middle of the 600 kilometers of sea separating the two.

However, Australia wants the same boundary it agreed with Indonesia, which occupied East Timor from 1975-1999. In some places, that boundary is just 150 kilometers from East Timor's coast.

Australian officials said last month the latest talks will seek a "creative solution" that would enable the $5 billion Greater Sunrise gas field -- the largest in the Timor Sea -- to be tapped without the permanent boundary question being settled.

Woodside Petroleum Ltd., one of the companies hoping to pump oil and gas out of the region, shelved the Greater Sunrise project last year because Australia and East Timor had failed to broker a revenue-sharing deal.

Australia insists that any solution must provide Woodside and its partners with legal certainty to proceed and must postpone any agreement on a permanent maritime boundary for at least 50 years, the official said.

Postponing the boundary agreement is aimed at ensuring that the agreement remains in place until the seabed energy reserves are exhausted.

The East Timorese got support Monday from a delegation including a Catholic bishop and the leader of Australia's Greens political party Sen. Bob Brown, which said it wanted to take part in the talks to ensure the tiny half-island nation is treated fairly.

"The majority of Australians want our government to offer a fair deal that reflects East Timor's rightful entitlement under current international law," Bishop Hilton Deakin said in a statement.