East Timor Planning Oil & Gas Reserve Study

The newly formed nation of East Timor is planning to conduct independent surveys to assess the extent of its onshore reserves of oil and gas, the country's leader Xanana Gusmao said on Friday.

"Our government is trying to get an independent survey team to give us an idea of what we have," Gusmao, who led his country to independence last year following a bloody 25-year struggle against Indonesia.

East Timor sits adjacent to mineral-rich Indonesia and large deposits of oil and gas have been found in waters dividing East Timor and Australia.

Several energy companies including Woodside Petroleum and Premier Oil have been waiting for the chance to assess the tiny country's onshore oil and gas resources, but the president said East Timor wants to find out for itself before tendering out any commercial exploration contracts.

"There are many companies who have some data. But they use that data as a bargaining point. I believe that after we have a preliminary knowledge of existence, we will open the tender.

"Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri has told me that they are looking for not just oil and gas, but also other minerals," Gusmao, said while in Hong Kong for a business conference.

East Timor said in September it plans to pass legislation by the middle of 2004 to pave the way for oil and gas exploration, seen as crucial for future national revenues in a country of 800,000 people living on an average of $1 a day.

The Timor Sea between East Timor and Australia holds the Bayu-Undan and Greater Sunrise gas fields, which aim to bring gas to world markets from 2006 and 2009 respectively.

Laminaria, Corallina, Elang/Kakatua/Kakatua North oil fields are also located in the sea.

Later this month, East Timor and Australia are due to start talks, that are expected to be lengthy and complex, to draw a maritime border through the waters between them.

Gusmao said the issue of the border was one of sovereignty, and as such was about more than merely energy resources.

"Our problem is that when you consider us as an independent country, the boundary must be seen as part of the sovereignty, part of the act of self-determination," Gusmao said.

Under international law, East Timor and Australia can each claim maritime boundaries 200 nautical miles from their respective coasts. But that would mean they would overlap. In March the neighbors agreed to a temporary revenue-sharing treaty until a maritime border is drawn.

That treaty splits revenue from a shared 62,000 sq km (23,900 miles) area of sea 90:10 in favor of East Timor.