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Forum on African Oil Opens in Texas

The Corporate Council on Africa is hosting a two day "West Africa Oil and Gas Forum" November 19 and 20 in Houston, Texas. Officials from several oil producing West African countries will attend along with U.S. government representatives and oil and gas company executives.

Among the agenda topics are "African Oil and U.S. priorities" and "Risk Management in African Oil Investments." Africa has become an increasingly important source of oil for the United States and possible American military involvement in the security of the continent's oil facilities has been the subject of intense speculation in recent months. But there is a vast gap between rumor and reality.

The rumors have included one about the possible establishment of a U.S. naval base on the tiny but oil rich West African island nation of Sao Tome. Another foresees the imminent deployment of a special fleet to patrol the lucrative oil fields of the Gulf of Guinea.

But a senior Pentagon official says that while African oil is important to the United States, so far all that has happened from a military standpoint is contingency planning.

The official, interviewed by VOA at the Pentagon, insisted on anonymity, but in an unusual arrangement, agreed to allow her voice to be used.

"African oil is an increasing factor in the oil sector. There's no question about that," she said. "From the defense perspective, given that fact, we would be remiss if we did not spend some time thinking about the security implications of this for us."

Indeed, while African oil presently makes up about 15 percent of all U.S. imports, analysts are forecasting that number will grow to 25 percent in the near future. U.S. oil company investments on the continent are now in the billions of dollars.

But with such competing priorities as the war on terrorism, a possible conflict with Iraq and plans for deploying a missile defense system, the senior official says the military resources available for Africa are simply too limited for anyone to expect a sudden and significant U.S. armed presence in West Africa.

In any event, the official minimizes the potential threat to oil facilities there.

"Right now, our view is that we don't have to take any extraordinary measures; that the vulnerability of these assets at the present time is not such that we need to put bases in Sao Tome or have constant naval presence all along the coast of Africa or put hundreds of millions of dollars in security facilities in these nations."

Still, this official acknowledges American oil company executives have visited her Pentagon office to voice concern about the security of their investments, most recently discussing their investments in tiny Equatorial Guinea.

While its oil output is still relatively small compared to such powerhouses on the continent as Nigeria and Angola, it has become the fourth largest recipient of American investment in Africa, behind those two countries and South Africa.

But Equatorial Guinea can expect no American troops or naval vessels. Instead, all the U.S. government has sanctioned is involvement by a private American company in developing a coast guard security program.

The firm, MPRI, was initially approached four years ago by Equatorial Guinea's President, Teodoro Obiang, to provide a sweeping security overhaul for the country, on both land and sea.

But U.S. officials remain concerned about what they see as Equatorial Guinea's abysmal human rights record, and they have blocked all but the maritime security plan.