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Scientists find big Afghan oil resources
John Heilprin
Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- Two geological basins in northern Afghanistan hold 18 times the oil and triple the natural gas resources previously thought, scientists said Tuesday as part of a U.S. assessment aimed at enticing energy development in the war-torn country.

Nearly 1.6 billion barrels of oil, mostly in the Afghan-Tajik Basin, and about 15.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, mainly in the Amu Darya Basin, could be tapped, said the U.S. Geological Survey and Afghanistan's Ministry of Mines and Industry.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai described the estimates as "very positive findings," particularly since the country now imports most of its energy, including electricity.

"Knowing more about our country's petroleum resources will enable us to take steps to develop our energy potential, which is crucial for our country's growth," said Karzai, whose government was created after the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 and later won national elections.

The $2 million assessment, paid for by the independent U.S. Trade and Development Agency, was nearly four years in the making, said Daniel Stein, the agency's regional director for Europe and Eurasia. The total area assessed was only about one-sixth of the two basins' 200,000 square miles that lie within Afghanistan.

Interior Secretary Gale Norton, whose agency includes the U.S. Geological Survey, said the assessment would help Afghanistan better understand and manage its natural resources.

Afghanistan's petroleum reserves were previously thought to hold 88 million barrels of oil and 5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, based on Afghan and Soviet estimates for 15 oil and gas fields opened between 1957 and 1984. But just three of those have operated recently.

"There is a significant amount of undiscovered oil in northern Afghanistan," said Patrick Leahy, the U.S. Geological Survey's acting director. He said the other oil fields were abandoned, or the equipment there is damaged and rocks have filled the wells.

More work remains to assess petroleum reserves, conduct seismic exploration and rehabilitate wells, say government and industry officials.
Companies could drill relatively quickly, potentially bringing in billions of dollars in revenue to the transitional government, said H.E. Said Tayeb Jawad, Afghanistan's ambassador to the United States.

"Within two to three years, the prospects are there for companies to start exploring oil and gas. The legal infrastructure is in place for the companies to come in," Jawad said in an interview.

"As far as security, they may have to take some additional precautions. But the country is much safer than what's perceived in the media," he said. "But of course we are fighting terrorism, it's a phenomenon, it's a danger, but it's not limited to one country."

The danger comes with the territory, said Barry Gale, a private energy consultant and former director of the Energy Department's international science and technology office.

"This is a pretty risky investment," he said. "But there's ferocious competition out there among multinationals just to get a foot in the door, even if it's a scary door."

Karzai is struggling to deal with an upsurge in violence and suicide bombings in recent months, though Bush administration officials have praised the progress Afghanistan has made since a U.S.-led coalition toppled the hard-line Taliban regime in 2001. The United States plans to give $1.1 billion in aid next year to the nation where Osama bin Laden once trained terrorists and plotted the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.


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