PHNOM PENH, Jan 19 (Reuters) - Cambodia hopes to start pumping oil from offshore fields in the Gulf of Thailand in two years, although it is too early to say how big the reserves are, its energy chief said on Friday.
Te Duong Tara, Director General of the National Petroleum Authority, said there was not yet sufficient data to back up reported forecasts of between 400 million and 700 million barrels in its “Block A”, being explored by U.S. giant Chevron Corp (CVX.N).
“The country will have oil production by 2009 or early 2010,” he said told Reuters. “We need more data to tell us how much oil there is. They need to drill more wells before they can make a real prediction.”
Revenue from even relatively small oil reserves would have a major impact on the economy of the war-ravaged Southeast Asian nation, still recovering from Pol Pot’s ultra-Maoist revolution in the late 1970s.
Chevron holds 55 percent of the 6,278 square km (2,424 sq mile) block, Japan’s Mitsui Oil Exploration Co. (MOECO) -- a Thai unit of Mitsui Oil Exploration Co. (8031.T) -- holds 30 percent and South Korea’s LG-Caltex 15 percent.
Chevron had drilled 13 exploration wells so far and “another well will be drilled soon”, Te Duong Tara said. The companies had spent more than $120 million since 2002, he said.
International experts advising Phnom Penh on how to deal with the revenue without sparking inflation are urging caution.
“It may be 400 million barrels, it may be 700 million barrels or it might be seven barrels. We just don’t know yet,” Guy Allinson, a petroleum engineer from the University of New South Wales in Australia, told Reuters on the sidelines of a seminar this week.
Despite this, interest was growing and many international investors were knocking at the door, Te Duong Tara said.
The area up for exploration covers 37,000 square km (14,300 sq miles). Another 27,000 square km are disputed with Thailand. Interest in the so-called “Block B” was coming from Thailand’s PTT (PTT.BK) and Singapore Petroleum Co. Ltd. SPCS.SI, Te Duong Tara said.
Malaysian, Australian, Chinese, Indonesian and Kuwaiti firms were also looking at possible investment, as was France’s Total (TOTF.PA), he added.
Cambodia imports more than 1 million tonnes of oil products annually, mostly from Thailand, Vietnam and Singapore, energy officials said.
Cambodia’s donors, who give it around $600 million a year in aid, are urging the government not to squander the proceeds on unnecessary “prestige projects”, or simply see it frittered away by corruption.
Te Duong Tara said Phnom Penh was determined not to follow in the footsteps of Nigeria, which is frequently accused of misspending the billions of oil dollars it makes.
“We have been poor and we do not want to be poor again,” he said. “We will use this resource in an appropriate way to help our people. We will invest especially in social sectors such as health and education.”