Under the terms of the 12-month contract, the French company will shoot 2-D seismic over several thousand kilometres and undertake geological and geophysical studies to assess the petroleum potential of the zone, which is largely unexplored. At the end of the 12 months, TotalFinaElf will apply to extend the contract for a further year, a company official says.

The signing of the contract on 19 October follows the announcement earlier in the month that the US’ Kerr-McGeehad acquired a 100 per cent interest in the northern half of the Western Sahara offshore area (MEED 19:10:01).

Morocco laid claim to Western Sahara after Spain withdrew from the territory in 1975, but Rabat’s rule is rejected by Polisario, which is seeking independence for the area. Polisario is understood to have objected to the reconnaissance contracts, claiming they violate the rights of the Sahrawi people.

Since 1990, the UN has been trying to resolve the Western Sahara dispute through a referendum on self-determination. However, earlier this year, the UN’s special envoy to the region, former US secretary of state James Baker, moved to promote a political solution to the dispute in place of the UN settlement plan (MEED 6:7:01, Seven Days).

TotalFinaElf declined to comment on the political aspects of the Western Sahara contract. A spokeswoman for Kerr-McGee said the company ‘hopes to be able to make a positive contribution to the development of the area that will benefit its people under whatever governmental arrangement is eventually reached’.