Geologists charge US oil 'giveaway' in Gulf of Mexico

A little-known treaty now before the US Senate would hand over to Mexico some of the most "promising" sources, for deep-water oil in the Gulf of Mexico, says a highly respected petroleum geologist.

Hollis D. Hedberg, professor emeritus at Princeton University, with backing from some fellow geologists, charges that the US is giving Mexico more than its fair share of the Gulf Mexico in an agreement establishing maritime boundaries between the two nations.

"The proposed boundary of the draft treaty would needlessly lose to the United States almost all of the northwestern deep-water part of the Gulf of Mexico -- about 25,000 square miles," Mr. Hedberg told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in June in testimony that is only now getting public notice. Other geologists express similar concerns.

The "lost" area would include the Sigsbee Knolls in the deepest part of the Gulf where a research hole already has proved the presence of oil.

Deputy legal adviser Mark B. Feldman of the US State Department disputed Hedberg's figure of 25,000 square miles. "My figures are quite a bit lower than that," he told the Senate committee. But he conceded that Mexico will have a bigger share of the Gulf than will the US under the treaty, which was negotiated two years ago.

Mr. Feldman explained that the two countries had made a trade-off. The US won a wide area for fishing and mineral rights around the Pacific islands of San Clemente and San Nicolas, and Mexico won expanded jurisdiction over waters around the Gulf islands of Alacran and Arrecife.

"We think it was a good trade," said Feldman.

As drafted, the treaty would divide most of the Gulf of Mexico by drawing a line 200 miles off the shore of the US and 200 miles from the Mexican islands near the Yucatan. Waters beyond the 200-mile limit would be designated international pending a future agreement.

Hedberg argues that the entire Gulf of Mexico should be divided, more or less down the middle. The boundary would be halfway between the edges of the underwater continental slopes of the two countries. The result would be far more Gulf for the US than the draft treaty offers.

"The entire Gulf of Mexico basin is prospective petroleum territory," the Princeton professor testified.

The State Department position, which won unanimous support from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, counters:

* The draft treaty will bring under US control 18,000 square miles of sea, including four rich fishing banks in the Pacific Ocean near Mexico.

* Oil in the central Gulf of Mexico is in such deep water that it would not be exploited for years. (Geologists concur that it might be 25 to 50 years before the oil industry could drill in the region.)

* The US wants to preserve the principle that islands off the mainland extend a country's borders and can be considered the starting point for national territory. (A pending treaty with Cuba applies this rule, giving the US broad authority over the area around the Florida Keys.)

What if the Senate, which is expected to act on the treaty before Oct. 4, fails to ratify it? The failure would be "unsettling in our relations with Mexico," according to Feldman, and it might lead the Mexicans to change their minds about granting fishing rights in the Pacific.

A geologist with the American Petroleum Institute said this week that his association has not taken a stand on the Mexico treaty and that the oil industry has paid little attention. "Everyone thought it was a fishing agreement," he said. Moreover, such deep-water sites are of more interest to geologists than to the industry since it would be years until drillers could go so deep, as much as 10,000 feet underwater.

The American Association of Petroleum Geologists has joined Professor Hedberg's campaign to stop the Mexico treaty. John Amoruso, head of the geology association's political committee, told the Monitor the US should have two agreements -- one on fishing rights and another on mineral rights.

The Mexico treaty is concerned largely with fishing rights, and "minerals don't always know what the fish are doing," said Mr. Amoruso, who is president of a small oil-exploration company in Houston.

Amoruso added that his group is trying to assemble information about the oil potential of the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, a task that may not be easy since oil explorers usually keep their data secret.

The draft treaty with Mexico is one of at least 25 such maritime border agreements have the US government will be making in the next few years, as part of an international movement to settle the question of who rules the oceans. Treaties with Venezuela and Cuba are awaiting Senate action, along with the treaty with Mexico.

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