Cambodia, Thailand struggle over petroleum

By Andrew Symon

PHNOM PENH – Much international attention on Cambodia is focused on petroleum discoveries made by US supermajor Chevron offshore in the Gulf of Thailand. But the real prize is the overlapping claims area (OCA) further offshore to the west, an area long contested with Thailand.

But no exploration has ever taken place over what all geologists say is definitely prospective for oil and gas because of the failure of the Thais and Cambodians to reach a sensible agreement as to how to resolve border issues.

In principle, they have embraced a joint development approach, but this is not moving forward because of failure to agree on a division of the government revenues.

To some advisers close to the Cambodian government, a major stumbling block is Thai intransigence. While the Cambodians are now prepared to make some concessions, the Thais are still not giving anything, wanting the lion’s share of the benefits.

Certainly, there can be a lot of national sensitivities involved in settling border claims, and both Thais and Cambodians have long memories of old hostilities. But Bangkok’s attitude would not seem to sit well with all the talk in forums of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations of regional cooperation and good feeling, and also not in the context of the Asian Development Bank-promoted program to integrate the Greater Mekong Sub-Region economically.

Shine the light on the OCA
Just what Chevron has found in what are without dispute Cambodian waters is debatable. People may in fact be disappointed. All sorts of numbers are being bandied about, but Chevron itself is very tightlipped. Its Bangkok office says the sorts of numbers put forward by multilateral agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and media are speculative and do not come from Chevron. Where development goes in its offshore Block A is not clear.

After completion of a recent drilling round, Chevron said: “All data will be thoroughly analyzed over the next several months to recalibrate the pre-drill geological and geophysical models and to determine the ultimate resource potential in Block A.” There are in fact counter-rumors now that the petroleum resources in the block, while maybe still at commercial levels, are far less than what has been anticipated. Time will tell. The government has tentatively put petroleum reserves in Block A at 700 million barrels.

Better to shine the spotlight on the 27,000-square-kilometer OCA in the north of the Gulf of Thailand.

Geologists say it is very prospective for oil and gas because it covers a continuation of structures that in adjacent and truly Thai waters have been producing large volumes of oil and gas for many years. This is a different geology from that under the Cambodian waters to the east of the OCA.

Indicative of the OCA’s prospectivity is that both sides have awarded blocks over the same areas to major companies. These include ConocoPhillips of the United States, Chevron (taking up blocks also held earlier by Unocal after Chevron acquired that company in 2005, as well as its existing prior interests in the OCA), BG (British Gas), Australia’s BHP Billiton, and Japan’s Idemitsu, Inpex and Moeco. None have relinquished their claims, pointing to the strength of the OCA’s prospects.

The origins of the OCA dispute date back to borders made more than a century ago between Siam and the colonial French government then ruling Cambodia and Laos as well as Vietnam. A result of this is that today in the northern part of the OCA, Cambodian- and Thai-claimed maritime borders are almost perpendicular to each other.

Efforts to resolve the problem made some headway at the start of the decade when the two sides signed a memorandum of understanding in 2001 agreeing that a joint development regime could be established over the lower two-thirds of the area while the northern third could be developed once the maritime border could be delineated. But the road was still not easy, as Thailand insisted that this border delineation be achieved before a joint development area could be established.

Discussions fell into limbo after the diplomatic breakdown in Thai-Cambodia relations in early 2003. This was caused by attacks on the Thai Embassy and property triggered by reported remarks by a Thai actress that Cambodia’s revered Ankhor Wat temple complex in the northwest of the country should be part of Thailand.

Relations were eventually repaired and negotiations resumed over the OCA.

The current Thai proposal is that the disputed area be divided into three strips running north-south, with the revenue from the central area to be shared equally. The share from the outer areas would be weighted in favor of the country adjacent to that area. But a difficulty here for Cambodia is that the most prospective areas are likely to be to the west.

For its part, Cambodia proposes dividing the area vertically down the middle and six times horizontally, creating 14 different blocks. Revenues from the blocks would be shared equally. Each country would be responsible for managing seven of the blocks, allocated in a checkerboard pattern.

Thailand, however, does not seem prepared to accept equal division and argues for a greater share of the fiscal benefits. Yet even under a 50:50 split of government revenue from oil and gas production from a joint development area, Thailand would gain the largest share of the overall economic benefits.

According to a study undertaken by UK-based petroleum-industry consultants Wood McKenzie, 85% of the development’s overall economic benefits would accrue to Thailand. This was determined on the basis of gas from the OCA likely being fed into an existing comprehensive Thai pipeline system in the gulf. Thailand would  gain transit fees and other benefits such as further gas for its power generation instead of importing via expensive liquefied natural gas. Thailand would also gain more through displacement of imported oil. Thailand imports almost all of its oil supplies.

The ultimate position of companies allocated blocks by the respective governments is unclear. The Cambodian awards were made in 1997 conditional to a resolution of the dispute. The Thai awards were made in the late 1970s, and legal opinion is that these may be in force majeure.

Achieving a breakthrough
Government officials from both sides meet three or four times a year under the terms of the 2001 memorandum of understanding, but it appears little progress is being made now.

Clearly the uncertainties in Thailand after the coup last September against the government of Thaksin Shinawatra are not helping. Until there is a new constitution and new government to succeed the present military-directed caretaker administration, the Thais will not make any commitments.

Under Thaksin, there were some signs that he may have been able to bite the bullet and force an agreement through his bureaucracy. This would have been consistent with Thaksin’s wider plans for a Thai-centered economic-development thrust for the Thailand-Indochina region, called the Ayeyawady-Chao Phya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy. And blueprints prepared under him did include schemes for OCA development.

Recourse to the International Court of Justice in The Hague is not an option, it seems. Both sides must be prepared to submit their cases for judgment, and this is very, very unlikely to happen because the Thais remember the last time they went along with this way of doing things – they lost their claim to the ancient Khmer temple of Preah Vihear, which is just inside Cambodia’s northern border with Thailand.

That issue, like the OCA matter, had its origins in borders determined by the French colonial government with Siam. In 1954, the year after France granted independence to Cambodia, the Thai military (Siam was finally renamed Thailand in 1949) seized the temple from Cambodia. The then prime minister, Prince Sihanouk, took the matter to the International Court in 1959. The Thais were also prepared to have their case heard.

But to Bangkok’s chagrin, the court ruled in Cambodia’s favor in 1962. Cambodia did have some substantial legal counsel. One of those representing Phnom Penh was Dean Acheson, who was secretary of state (1949-53) in the administration of US president Harry Truman. The current failure to unlock the OCA is lamentable. On Bangkok’s side, there should be keenness to resolve the issue, given Thailand’s own need to find new gas supplies for domestic power generation and oil to offset its growing oil-import bill.

And for Cambodia, one of the world’s poorest countries, revenue from the petroleum development would, of course, be a blessing if it enabled the government to finance more infrastructure and health and education.

At this prospect, there are, however, plenty of cautionary voices from multilateral organizations and international NGOs warning about the risk of Cambodia squandering such riches through bad management, poor economic policy and corruption.

Phnom Penh has no shortage of advice. But perhaps it would be better first to work out how the OCA problem might be resolved, especially if the Chevron finds on Block A are less than were once hoped.

In any case, an OCA joint development scheme should be attractive to those who are worried about the use of resources revenues. As one petroleum lawyer says, a joint development area would have to offer transparency as there would be an overarching treaty signed by both countries to govern operations. There would be a regulatory framework set down, a joint authority to manage it, and reports of operations and revenues made to both governments.

There are examples of how this can work. The joint development area between Thailand and Malaysia in the southern part of the Gulf of Thailand has been supplying gas to Malaysia since last year and is set to supply gas to Thailand from about 2008.

Then there are the joint development treaties between Australia and East Timor. While the determining of splits for the contested areas has been a controversial process since Timor succeeded Indonesia as the treaty partner upon independence in 1999, this now seems to be bedded down.

Under one joint development arrangement, covering the producing Bayu Undan gas and condensate field, East Timor gains 90% of government revenue. A more contentious deal was for the Greater Sunrise gas fields, yet to be developed, where a 50:50 split was finally agreed on.

The outcomes reflect both East Timor’s legitimate border claims and the view in Canberra that such splits would be an effective way of ensuring that the tiny new state has access to revenues and will not be forever reliant on multilateral and bilateral handouts – including those that would come from Australia.

Australia did not reach this position without difficult negotiation with the Timorese and its United Nations advisers, and there was domestic and international NGO pressure on Canberra to provide East Timor with a better deal over Greater Sunrise than Australia had first proposed.

The Thai-Cambodian OCA situation is perhaps not so different. Yet there does not seem any wider debate and concern as to what responsible position Thailand could take if it wished to assist the development of its much poorer neighbor and promote economic cooperation in the Mekong region.

Andrew Symon is a Singapore-based journalist and consultant specializing in energy and resources.

Copyright 2007 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved.


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