Philippines, China oil firms eye deal in disputed sea

AP

A Filipino-British company has begun talks with China’s state-owned offshore oil producer for a deal to jointly explore for oil and gas in the Reed Bank, a vast offshore area in dispute between China and the Philippines, a Filipino official said Wednesday.

Energy Secretary Jericho Petilla said the talks between London-based Forum Energy PLC and China National Offshore Oil Corporation, or CNOOC, were at a preliminary stage. He added a commercial agreement could hopefully be reached despite the long-raging disputes over the Reed Bank.

The talks were being held abroad, mostly recently in Hong Kong, he said.

The alternative to not entering into a business partnership “is not to drill, probably forever.” Petilla said.

President Benigno Aquino III said any such deal with China would have to conform to Philippine laws. The Reed Bank northwest of the Philippine province of Palawan lies clearly within his country’s exclusive economic zone, Aquino said.

The territorial conflict has hampered oil exploration in the offshore area, Petilla said, but added the Philippines needed to find a way to tap its potentially huge oil and gas deposits to meet his country’s growing energy demand. Natural gas deposits at a nearby offshore field called Malampaya are expected to run out in 2024, he said, adding it takes about a decade to develop such a gas field.

China and the Philippines, along with Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam, have been contesting ownership of the clusters of mostly barren islands, islets, reefs and surrounding waters in the South China Sea for years. There have been fears that the disputes could spark Asia’s next major armed conflict and block free passage in the busy sea lanes, where the bulk of the oil and cargo that fuel Asia’s bustling economies is transported.

Chinese ships tried to drive away a Philippine exploration vessel at the Reed Bank in March 2011. A Philippine general deployed two air force planes but the Chinese patrol ships had left by the time the aircraft reached the contested area.