Subject: Australian Lawmakers Expected To OK Timor Gas Deal

Received from Joyo Indonesia News

Associated Press March 24, 2004

Australian Lawmakers Expected To OK Timor Gas Deal

CANBERRA (AP)--Australian lawmakers moved closer Wednesday to passing legislation letting Australia and East Timor share a gas and oil field - a deal some lawmakers say shortchanges one of the world's poorest nations.

Under the deal, Australia would take about 80% and East Timor 20% of royalties from the Greater Sunrise field, which some analysts say could hold A$40 billion in gas and oil.

Some opposition lawmakers say that's unfair to the fledgling nation.

"What a terrible, terrible situation," Green Party leader Bob Brown said in Parliament.

"If I feel angry about it, how must the East Timorese feel?"

But the legislation appeared certain to pass after the opposition Labor Party Wednesday agreed to support it. Senators ran out of time for a vote, but one was expected Thursday.

The Australian government and newly independent East Timor struck the deal last year, based on a maritime border between them drawn in the 1970s by Australia and East Timor's former ruler, Indonesia.

That border placed 80% of Sunrise in Australia's hands and 20% in a joint development zone shared between Australia and Indonesia.

Now independent, East Timor disputes that border and has begun negotiating with Australia for a new one that delivers more of Sunrise - and more royalties. Its leaders agreed to the revenue sharing deal as a way of getting money quickly while drawn-out maritime border negotiations continue.

But the East Timorese Parliament has yet to ratify the deal.

East Timor's Prime Minister, Mari Alkatiri, has accused Australia of delaying border negotiations while continuing to issue mineral exploration licenses around Sunrise, and says Australia's continued claims to 80% of Sunrise "undermine prospects for its (the royalty deal's) approval."

Members of the U.S. Congress have also questioned the deal.

Democratic Congressman Barney Frank of Massachusetts, along with 53 colleagues, wrote to Australian Prime Minister John Howard, criticizing his government for failing to give a time frame to settle the boundary.

The U.S. lawmakers wrote: "Given the overlapping claims of the two countries, we would strongly hope that any revenue from disputed areas be held in escrow until a permanent boundary is established."

Australia's Parliament Wednesday rejected an amendment proposed by a minor party, the Australian Democrats, that would have forced the government to hold in trust any tax revenue from Sunrise until permanent boundaries are determined.

Cabinet minister Eric Abetz defended Australia's plan to negotiate with East Timor on the new border once every six months.

Alkatiri, who maintains East Timor is entitled to all of Sunrise under international law, wants monthly meetings.

"While delaying on negotiations, Australia has issued new licenses in disputed areas near Sunrise and is continuing to derive revenues from other disputed parts of the Timor Sea," he said in a statement quoted in Parliament.

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