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Gulf Spill a Reminder of Cambodia Shortfalls

As the US grapples with the implications of the Gulf Coast oil spill, environmental and other groups in Cambodia say the country needs to do more to safeguard its own environment as it moves toward increased oil and gas exploration.

The BP oil spill, now in its sixth week, has poured thousands of barrels of oil into the sea. The environmental costs are likely to be huge, but the political costs are now beginning to mount for the US administration.

Analysts in Cambodia say that if the country does not want to undergo a similar experience, the government must put in place certain protective mechanisms.

Cambodia lacks a coast guard authority, a safety administration and protective agreements with companies who are exploring Cambodia’s oil and gas reserves, even though it expects oil to start flowing by 2012.

“In response to any possible oil spill in the future, a coast guard authority and a petroleum safety administration should be set up to be in charge of safeguarding the environment, ” Mam Sambath, chairman of the Cambodians for Resource Revenue Transparency, a coalition of non-governmental agencies, said. “All of the companies exploring for oil should also be encouraged to create an association which is tasked with coping with the possible oil spill.”

The newly established authorities should not be put under the existing Cambodian National Petroleum Authority so that separated technical management can be ensured for an effective mechanism, Mam Sambath said.

At least 13 companies have so far been granted exploration licenses with some already beginning exploration. Full drilling could begin soon in what experts estimate is a reserve of 400 million to 700 million barrels of oil worth billions of dollars. However, the money comes with risks, as the Gulf spill has shown, and observers say Cambodia lacks the institutions and agreements to deal with them.

Ou Virak, president of Cambodian Human Rights Center, who also manages a website monitoring development trends, said the government also needs to make a protective agreement with oil companies to have all the necessary pre-cautious put in place.

“Any company granted the extracting right has to be tasked with setting up detailed plans to protect the environment and the people, who might be affected by a possible oil incident,” he said. “If any company does not provide the protective plans or if the plans are not reasonable or inadequate, the government should reject them.”

The government could also apply for an Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative to learn from other member countries ways to better manage oil risks, as well as revenues. EITI works with more than 30 countries to increase transparency and accountability in oil revenue.

Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said EITI candidate status for Cambodia is not necessary because the country is already transparent in managing its oil revenue. The establishment of additional authorities to deal with any possible oil spill is not needed either, he said, as the country already has the National Petroleum Authority.

“If we created some more authorities, we would be criticized for spending more money,” he said.

National Petroleum Authority officials declined to comment on protective mechanisms for possible oil spills.

However, Cheam Yiep, a ruling party National Assembly member, said the Gulf spill had encouraged lawmakers to push for separate agreements with oil companies to ensure Cambodia is better prepared for such an incident.

“We will use the US experience as an example and basis for discussion and for an agreement with companies to extract oil in our country,” he told VOA Khmer.

Yim Sovann, an opposition lawmaker, said parliament needs to enact more laws to guarantee safety in the oil industry and that it needs to push the government to apply for EITI status to ensure transparency and accountability in management of revenue from the extractive industries.