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Last Updated: Friday, 27 February, 2004, 11:00 GMT
US firms plan Libya oil talks
Kuwati refinery
Libya oil installations will need investment
American oil firms banned from pumping their Libyan wells since 1986 by US sanctions are to hold talks with Libyan officials on possible future business.

The Oasis group of firms with stakes in Libya's Waha field is to send a team to Tripoli in the next few days, BBC News Online has learned.

The lifting of the US ban on travel to Libya has raised the oil companies' hopes of resuming business there.

But they stressed they would not breach US trade sanctions.

"Our return to active participation in the Oasis group's Waha concession area remains dependent upon further authorisation from the US government," said ConocoPhillips in a statement.

Oasis Group stakeholders
ConocoPhillips 16.33%
Marathon Oil Corp 16.33%
Amerada Hess 8.16%
Libya National Oil Company 59.16%
source: ConocoPhillips

"We will have a team go over shortly to begin the negotiation of the terms of our re-entry," said Jay Wilson, a spokesman for Oasis member Amerada Hess.

"What we've had is a green light but not the green light," he said.

The third US member of the Oasis group is Marathon Oil Corp. The Libyan National Oil Company holds a majority stake and has continued to operate the wells since 1986.

The next step

As to when sanctions might be lifted, the oil firms denied receiving any guidance from the US State Department.

A Marathon Oil spokesman, Paul Weeditz, said the firm "would not want to predict" when sanctions might end "however we are pleased and encouraged by recent developments".

"We're going to comply fully with all US laws and policy and it'll happen when it happens," said Amerada Hess's Mr Wilson.

Oasis teams have visited Libya since 1986 to inspect the condition of the Waha wells, operating under strict US guidelines limiting talks to technical issues and banning senior executives from taking part.

As a result of these technical delegations, Oasis members have "a pretty good idea of the status of the field," according to Mr Wilson.

He declined to say how big a boost to output it might represent, while Marathon Oil's spokesman said there was "no estimate" of reserves.

Investment

"I don't want try and quantify any numbers, but we have expressed our interest in returning, if and when US policy allows us to do so," said Mr Weeditz.

Oasis production peaked in 1969 at 1 million barrels a day, and has been estimated at just over three quarters of that in 1986.

Libya is "a tidy, significant oil exporter, but it's not going to change the character of the oil market," according to Jim Placke of Cambridge Energy Research Associates in Washington.

Even if sanctions are lifted, the US firms must still agree terms with Libya, whose government may look for substantial investment pledges.

The Libyan oil minister recently said US firms could bring better technology to his country's oil industry.

European oil majors have continued to work in Libya.




WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Linden Kemkaran
"American companies have been told they can begin talks about returning to Libya"



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