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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Tonle Sap oil exploration plans afoot

Tonle Sap oil exploration plans afoot

The Tonle Sap is the new frontier for oil exploration, and drilling could begin

there in just five years, said Te Duong Tara, director-general of the Cambodian

National Petroleum Authority (CNPA).

Duong Tara said that two deep basins

have been located in the Tonle Sap region. One is under the temples at Angkor,

so will likely never be touched. The other is in the western part of the Tonle

Sap.

"We have now found more [opportunities for] prospecting than

before, but we need to move cautiously," said Duong Tara. "The Tonle Sap is the

heart of Cambodia, so we have to take much care."

The fish-rich Tonle Sap

is the source of 70 percent of the Kingdom's protein; annual flooding makes the

surrounding land highly fertile.

The next step in data gathering is

seismic testing, which involves detonating explosives inside shallow holes to

measure the echoes. Exploration wells will be drilled where findings are

favorable.

To reduce the impact on the environment, CNPA will focus

exploration along national road 5 from Kampong Chhnang through Pursat to

Battambang, home to rice fields and small forests, said Duong

Tara.

However, talk of drilling for oil in the Tonle Sap catchment area

has environmental groups worried. They are concerned that any petroleum

exploration could do great harm.

"Of course poor disposal or leakage

would be detrimental to biodiversity," said Kosal Mam, program coordinator for

Wetlands International.

He said that since it is a tropical area, a

rainstorm could quickly result in oil draining into the lake, and "in Cambodia

there's no contingency plan to respond to such an incident".

The

Cambodian government and CNPA hope to revolutionize the country's petroleum

industry, starting with the March 20 concession to ChevronTexaco and Mitsui Oil

to drill in Block A in the Gulf of Thailand.

When asked about

opportunities in the Tonle Sap, Chevron Texaco's government relations and public

affairs manager, Rattikan Chaiwanit, said: "At the moment we are focusing on

Block A, but we are very interested in exploring in the future."

CNPA

estimates that there are three to five trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of natural gas

in Block A. One Tcf can run a 1,000 Megawatt power plant for at least 20 years.

There are not yet any estimates on the amount of oil and

condensate.

ChevronTexaco will be the first international oil company to

drill in the Kingdom since 1998. Although previous attempts by others such as

Enterprise and Campex have found oil in the 6,000 square kilometer area, costs

were deemed too high to start production. New technology and ChevronTexaco's

large presence in the Gulf should make the venture profitable.

Royalties

come with production, said Duong Tara, so the country has not yet received

payment from ChevronTexaco. At least two test wells will be drilled in 2002, and

if results are positive, the company will continue drilling in Block

A.

"It will be a number of years before oil is produced from Block A,"

said Chevron Texaco's Chaiwanit.

CNPA believes a local oil and gas

industry is essential for the country's development. Cambodia consumes 50-70,000

tons of imported petroleum products a month. As a result, power is about three

times more expensive than in Vietnam and Thailand, with smuggling

common.

"Energy is very expensive in Cambodia," said Duong Tara. "The

government talks about poverty alleviation and economic growth, but without

energy, you cannot [achieve that]."

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