Natalie Sharples of War on Want explores oil and independence in Western Sahara – This article was first published in Platform’s Carbon Web Newsletter Issue 5.
Over the past decade, Western Sahara’s struggle for independence from Morocco has played out through resource politics. With potential offshore oil and gas reserves, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) government in exile and the occupying Moroccan government both recognise the rewards of production agreements.
Exploration licencing has become a political struggle, with Morocco attempting to appropriate Western Sahara’s natural resources and SADR desperately trying to assert its sovereignty through legal processes and creative licencing from exile. After years of legal disputes and pressure from Sahrawi activists, US oil company Kerr-McGee finally ended its co-operation with the Moroccan occupiers earlier this year.
Western Sahara is Africa’s last colony. In 1975 Morocco used Napalm and phosphorus to drive 165 000 Sahrawi into exile in the Algerian desert. In 2000 the Moroccan state oil company granted reconnaissance permits to Total and Kerr-McGee for exploration in Western Sahara’s waters. Adjoining Mauritania’s MSGBC basin, a hotbed of exploration, a 2000 US geological survey estimated Western Sahara’s oil and gas reserves at 14 million barrels and gas at 77 billion cubic feet.
Kerr-McGee and Total’s operations were legally disputed. A 2002 UN legal opinion on activities in Western Sahara concluded that if exploitation “were to proceed in disregard of the interests and wishes of the people of Western Sahara, they would be in violation of the international law principles applicable to mineral resource activities in Non-Self-Governing Territories.”
Public pressure forced Total and three contractors to pull out in 2004 but Kerr-McGee refused to budge, referring to the occupied area as Morocco. Kerr-McGee’s activities were widely seen as blocking peace efforts.
In 2005, the Norwegian Petroleum Fund dropped $52 million of shares, labelling Kerr McGee’s actions ‘a serious violation of fundamental ethical norms.’ Following this and sustained pressure from activists under the Western Sahara Resource Watch Coalition Kerr-McGee announced its withdrawal in May.
Meanwhile, SADR, recognised by over 40 countries and a full member of the African Union, began its own licensing round. With legal sovereignty over oil reserves but no control of the territory, it offered virtual oil exploration licences that will come into effect following independence. Despite UN inaction suggesting this may be a long way off, several major European and African companies signed agreements, including Premier, Encore, Europa and Ophir Energy.
SADR hopes to use the economic interests of the successful bidders to create pressure for progress towards independence.