Britain, Argentina Smell Oil, Defer Falkland Tiff

THE Falkland Islands are facing their second invasion since Argentina attempted to take them over in 1982.

They may soon witness an onslaught from oil companies, who will this year be bidding for offshore exploration rights. Seismic experts say the area holds promise of being 50 percent larger - and richer in "black gold" - than Britain's North Sea.

British Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind and his Argentine counterpart, Guido di Tella, cleared the path for test drilling last September when they signed a deal establishing a joint Anglo-Argentine hydrocarbon commission to administer the issuing of oil-exploration licenses.

The signing ceremony marked a major breakthrough in relations between the two countries, which came to blows 13 years ago when Argentina invaded the Falklands, which it calls the Malvinas Islands. Margaret Thatcher, then British prime minister, sent a task force 9,000 miles to the South Atlantic to recover what London insists must be called the Falklands.

Oil companies that decide to drill into the bed of one of the world's stormiest seas will be taking two risks - one technical, the other political.

EXPERTS remain uncertain about the oil potential of the South Atlantic field. Seismic surveys carried out in the last two or three years were encouraging. The general configuration "appears to be right," according to Philip Richards of the British Geological Survey, but "no one will know whether oil is actually there until they drill."

But such hesitations have not prevented British Gas from opening talks with Argentine companies about possible cooperation.

Meanwhile, the politics of the South Atlantic raise as many questions about future prospects as the geological surveys that have so far been carried out.

Britain and Argentina still dispute the sovereignty of the islands. Argentine President Carlos Menem hailed the drilling agreement with Britain as "a huge leap forward" in resolving the dispute with Britain about sovereignty over the Falkland Islands and their 2,200 inhabitants.

"It is the first real, legal step forward in Argentina's permanent struggle to regain sovereignty. It is the best achievement in 163 years, since our islands were usurped by the British in 1833," said President Menem before the signing.

Mr. Rifkind and his officials were quick to reply that the agreement protected British sovereignty of the islands.

The islanders themselves, known as "kelpers" because of the seaweed they used to gather to earn a living, consistently have said they are staunchly British, though a few of them were reported to have wavered in November 1994 when Menem renewed an offer to buy them out for a rumored 1 million ($1.55 million) each.

Looking ahead to potential profits, Britain and Argentina have already worked out a plan for deciding how Argentina and Britain will share the spoils if oil is discovered.

Oil industry sources say that under last September's agreement Britain will earn two-thirds of the royalties from oil and gas from waters east of the Falklands, with Argentina getting the other third. West of the islands, closer to the Argentine coast, the split will be 50-50. If preliminary drilling yields positive results, production could start in five or six years.

It is not clear how much the islanders would earn from actual production. But if commercial drilling begins, their style of life - and bank balances - will change drastically.

Experience in Aberdeen, Scotland, shore center of British North Sea production, suggests that Port Stanley, the tiny Falklands capital, will be transformed.

From being a community that earns a living these days from sheep farming, the kelpers will have to play host to more than 1,000 oil workers - an invasion likely to be as remarkable in its own way as that by Argentine commandos.

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