Subject: GLW: All eyes on the Timor Sea


From Green Left Weekly, June 30, 2004.

All eyes on the Timor Sea

Jon Lamb

As the pre-election hype takes off, the issue of the disputed maritime boundary between East Timor and Australia has slipped from the mainstream political spotlight. Nonetheless, the big oil and gas companies with investments in the Timor Sea remain concerned about the stand-off between Dili and Canberra.

Both Labor and the Coalition parties are seeking to reassure the companies involved that they have their interests at heart. Both Labor and the Coalition want to reassure the big oil companies that Australia is a secure place for investment and that when resource-rich countries in the region, like East Timor, are deemed to threaten these investments, they will be pressured to toe the line.

An indication of this was the discussion at the recent South-East Asia-Australia Offshore Conference (SEAAOC), held in Darwin on June 7-9. This conference included representatives from all the key corporate players in the Timor Sea, including some of Australia's and the world's largest oil and gas mining companies, such as the US-owned ConocoPhillips, the Anglo-Dutch-owned Shell and the Australian-owned Woodside Petroleum companies.

The conference opening and most of the proceedings on the first day focused on the situation in the Timor Sea. Speaking on behalf of the Coalition government, Warren Entsch, parliamentary secretary to the resources minister, reaffirmed that Canberra was not going to shift its position on the maritime boundary and that it is still opposed to having the dispute settled before the International Court of Justice.

Entsch also restated the Coalition government's opposition to East Timor's appeal for more than two rounds of talks per year. According to Entsch, holding more regular negotiations is “not realistic given the complexity of the issue and the national interests of both countries in ensuring that the permanent boundary is located in a position acceptable to both countries”.

A repeated focus of discussion between Dili and Canberra has been on resolving the boundary dispute so that developments in the Greater Sunrise field — the largest gas field in the Timor Sea — can go ahead. The key stumbling block is the refusal of East Timor to cede its sovereign territory and billions of dollars in royalties.

The total government share of revenue from Greater Sunrise is expected to be at least US$7 billion, of which Australia is attempting to swindle 82% through the Greater Sunrise Unitisation Agreement. If the maritime boundary was drawn according to international law, most of the gas field would fall under East Timor's jurisdiction.

Northern Territory Chief Minister Clare Martin proposed a “solution” to the impasse in her speech at SEAAOC by calling on the federal government to make a more generous offer in relation to Greater Sunrise. Martin suggested that the federal government “make a substantial one-off offer to allow for the development of the Sunrise resource”.

Does Martin's solution represent a better deal for East Timor? Martin's Labor government is desperate to secure the largest infrastructure project in the NT's history — the multi-billion dollar Wickham Point gas processing plant. The project will not survive if the Greater Sunrise deal is held up for a lengthy period of time.

Supporters of East Timor are questioning what difference a Labor federal government would make in the dispute between Dili and Canberra. At its national conference in January, the ALP indicated that it is in favour of “fairer” negotiations. But what this means has remained vague, with only the promise that a future Labor government would “negotiate in good faith”.

In March, Labor allowed passage through parliament of the Greater Sunrise Unitisation Agreement Implementation Bill, thus supporting the theft of East Timor's hydrocarbon resources.

In a recent Dow Jones interview, Labor energy and mining spokesperson Joel Fitzgibbon declined to state if Labor would accept East Timor's maritime boundary claims. “We're in no position to say what should be the starting point of the negotiations. It's difficult to do that from opposition”, said Fitzgibbon.

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