Vol. 7, No. 3
Phillips Petroleum & Canberra Play an Old Game
Phillips Petroleum and Canberra Play an Old Game
by Matthew Jardine
Once again, greedy oil companies and their allies in the Australian government are trying to take advantage of East Timor. And, once again, they are wrong.
The latest controversy concerns an announcement on July 26 by Phillips Petroleum, a U.S.-based oil company, and its fellow investors in the Timor Gap. In a letter to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Phillips expressed its dismay that East Timorese leaders will not guarantee them the same tax rates they received from the Indonesian occupation authorities. For this reason, Phillips and its partners are delaying “indefinitely” the construction of a $500 million pipeline that would carry natural gas from the Bayu-Undan field to Darwin.
A spokesperson for Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer criticized the East Timorese position for reportedly trying to extract a further $500 million from oil companies involved in the Timor Gap. While acknowledging East Timor’s right to decide its own tax policies, he claimed that East Timor’s position contradicts a signed promise by East Timorese leaders Xanana Gusmão, José Ramos Horta and Mari Alkatiri in October 1999. Reportedly, this agreement stated that taxation rates would be no higher than those under the Indonesian authorities. “We think it’s important that [East Timor] holds up its original commitment,” stated Downer’s spokesperson.
Rightfully, UN administrator Sergio Vieira de Mello publicly expressed
strong disapproval of Phillips Petroleum and various Australian government
officials. And lead negotiators for the recently-signed memorandum of
understanding on the new Timor Gap Treaty, Mari Alkatiri and Peter
Galbraith, voiced their support for de Mello’s position, with Minister
Alkatiri characterizing the concerns of the oil companies and Canberra as
In doing so, they are trying to maintain a fiscal regime very favorable to the interests of the oil companies, a position gained because of Indonesia’s desire to gain international acceptance of its illegal annexation of East Timor. In this regard, Phillips and Canberra are trying to institutionalize the result of a criminal act, one in which they were partners.
As former Political Affairs Minister, Peter Galbraith argued, “In October 1999, while Dili was still in smoldering ruins, East Timorese leaders indicated to the companies that they welcomed their continued investment in the Timor Sea. At the time, the leaders were not aware of the unfair investment incentives, which lay hidden in company contracts.” For this reason, asserted Galbraith, “It is ludicrous now to assert that East Timor is obliged to give the companies the benefit of the same unfair fiscal incentives that were offered to them by the Indonesians and Australians… (which were) offered to attract companies to invest in a territory which belonged neither to Indonesia nor Australia.”
There is too much money involved in the Timor Gap for Phillips Petroleum and its allies to not stay involved. The question is: under what conditions? As the past conduct of Phillips and its allies in aiding Indonesia’s subjugation of East Timor demonstrates, they are not defending any principle; they are simply trying to ensure high profits. The East Timorese leadership is correct to insist upon a set of tax policies that is significantly more favorable to East Timor.
(From the Lao Hamutuk Bulletin.)
Return to Winter 2001-2002 Menu