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Activists Press Ghana's Parliament on New Oil Law

As Ghana remains on track to join the world's league of oil producers next month, activists are concerned that a law being debated in parliament will not do enough to protect revenue transparency.

Civil society groups in Ghana have already asked the government to suspend licenses for oil exploration until the new oil and gas exploration bill is passed.

Friday a petition with thousands of signatures is due to be presented to Ghana's Speaker of Parliament Joyce Bamford-Addo calling on lawmakers to pass a law with strong transparency provisions before scheduled production starts in December.

Ghana's civil society movement has been getting support from transparency advocates in the United States, such as Ian Gary from Oxfam America.

The group's senior policy manager on extractive industries is afraid some of what he views as favorable elements in the proposed law will be taken out. "We are worried that some of the transparency provisions, such as publication of the payments that the government receives in major national newspapers or a proposed public interest and accountability committee might be stripped from the law," Gary said.

Gary says thousands of protest text messages have also been sent concerning the issue.

There have also been television, radio, and web ads, including one which shows money from a gas pump going back through pipelines to fund mansions, corruption and bribes.

The video ends with pictures of poor schools and hospitals in Africa and this voice-over: "Billions of dollars come out of the ground each year, yet our schools, our clinics, our children do not benefit. Where does the money go? We have a right to know."

Gary says civil society groups have more and more pressure points to make their case. "They are really using the democratic space that they have available to them. Sometimes Ghanaians vote for contests like Miss Ghana, but in this case, they are sending text messages to the civil society coalition working on oil transparency, calling on the government to be transparent in its management of oil revenues," he said.

Former Ghanaian President John Kufuor has also expressed concern about recent developments surrounding Ghana's expected oil boom. He told the British-based Financial Times newspaper he was almost tempted to believe in what people call the oil curse, by which they say oil brings more problems than benefits.

Some estimates are that Ghana could make as much as $1 billion a year in new oil revenues.

Government officials have warned against what they call hopes of an oil miracle. They have also stressed the importance of ensuring local employment in the oil business.

Start of production has been complicated by allegations of corruption between the Texas-based company Kosmos, which has important stakes in Ghana's oil fields and EO, a small Ghanaian company founded by two of Mr. Kufuor's former political allies.

Mr. Kufuor said both companies were looking to explore oil in Ghana much before other companies, which explains why they made important finds and are getting good contracts.

A U.S. Department of Justice investigation into the matter found no evidence of violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which is aimed at stopping bribery.

Chinese oil giant CNOOC and Ghana's state owned firm recently made a $5 billion joint bid for the stakes owned by Kosmos, but so far the Texas company has rejected the offer. An earlier bid of more than $4 billion by oil giant Exxon Mobil also failed

Activists seeking a better framework for Ghana's oil future would also like to see the new law requiring the disclosure of oil contracts between the government and foreign oil companies, as well as the establishment of an independent oil and gas regulatory authority.