A U.S. Senate panel is examining ways to secure West Africa's oil-rich Gulf of Guinea, amid growing concern about instability in a region that holds up to 10 percent of the world's reserves.

The United States imports about 15 percent of its oil from West and Central Africa, and that figure is expected to grow. Some estimates say that by 2020, the United States is expected to import 25 percent of its crude oil needs from the region.

Although having significant oil and natural gas reserves, West African nations continue to struggle with poverty, corruption, and ethnic strife. Some of the conflict in the region is related to disputes over the distribution of oil revenues.

U.S. officials told a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee hearing Thursday the United States is working with countries in the region to help them address corruption, rule of law and good governance to ensure long-term political and economic stability.

Assistant Secretary of Energy John Brodman warned that if the situation does not improve, these countries could become havens for terrorists. "The fact that they are politically unstable places and the fact that they already are existing other types of conflict makes these countries a potential breeding ground for future terrorist activity. "

Assistant Secretary of State Paul Simons echoed the comments, "I do think that to the extent that you have a weak law enforcement base in a number of these countries, that you are vulnerable as a soft target for terrorists to come in."

Among the top U.S. concerns is the so-called "bunkering", or stealing, of crude oil from pipelines in the Niger Delta.

Mr. Simons says while it is difficult to accurately determine the extent of the problem, estimates are that between 75,000 and 150,000 barrels per day of crude oil are stolen each day.

He says the oil makes its way through illicit activities in the Delta, including the introduction by local militias of increasingly sophisticated weapons in the region.

Mr. Simons says the Nigerian government is working to reduce the problem. He praises the government's decision last year to deploy four-thousand military personnel in the region and upgrade security around some oil facilities, but he says more needs to be done.

David Goldwyn, founder of the Washington-based Goldwyn International Strategies, which offers political risk assessment and risk management advice to investors, agrees that the Nigerian government must do more.

"The unrest in the Niger Delta region is unresolved. Political violence is often directed at foreign oil workers and facilities. Foreign oil workers have been held hostage for weeks at a time," he said.

Mr. Goldwyn says the United States lacks a strategic policy towards the region. He calls for greater U.S. diplomatic, military and economic engagement with the area.

"I think the United States should lead an urgent effort to help countries of the Gulf of Guinea protect their maritime territories and enhance on-shore policing and security. In the long term the United States and others can help train local personnel how to secure oil installations themselves in a manner that respects human rights," he said.

Mr. Goldwyn says in the short term, the United States should enhance its own presence in the Gulf of Guinea and begin direct consultations with the regions' governments and start an equip and train effort to establish a regional maritime security force.

The U.S. European Command has already begun the process.

General Charles Wald, deputy commander of the European Command, has visited the region recently and proposed U.S. help in monitoring the Gulf of Guinea.

Stephen Morrison, director of Africa programs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here in Washington agrees, says that is a good start.

"I think those conversations and that diplomacy should be intensified. We need a partner, the spirit is there today, the environment is receptive to doing that," he said.

Mr. Morrison says it would not cost the United States much to make a difference in the region. He estimates that stepped up U.S. efforts in the region to fight piracy of oil, improve the oil production environment and deter terror and sabotage would cost between 10 and 20 million dollars each year.