The government has created the Tonle Sap Basin Authority, which will conduct a study on possible oil reserves in the great lake area for interested private companies, officials said Thursday.
Senior Minister Tao Seng Hour, deputy president of the Agriculture and Rural Development Council and president of the new authority, said the authority was established to manage the Tonle Sap basin and coordinate future oil and gas projects with the international partners.
“The authority will do studies for oil exploration,” Tao Seng Hour said by telephone.
The authority will improve the environment and the livelihoods of those living in the basin area, which covers an approximately 16,000-square-kilometer stretch surrounding the Tonle Sap lake, Tao Seng Hour said.
“We will make sure that there is no pollution” from the exploration, Tao Seng Hour added, but declined to comment as to how much oil the government believes to be in the basin.
In March, Prime Minister Hun Sen expressed his opposition to the Tonle Sap basin being designated a World Heritage Site, saying that fishing and the extraction of oil and mineral resources might be constrained as a result of its protected status.
Tao Seng Hour said that the authority was now a necessity due to increased spending in the basin by the government and investors.
“We are spending more money, so we must have good management,” he said.
In 1997, the Tonle Sap lake and surrounding floodplain were designated a Unesco Biosphere Reserve, which established zones with different levels of protection and development but also permitted natural resource extraction. Officials at Unesco could not be reached for comment Thursday.
According to a Sept 8 royal decree, the basin authority will consist of 30 members including ministers, provincial governors, National Petroleum Authority officials and representatives from the Apsara Authority, which currently manages the Angkor temples.
SRP lawmaker Son Chhay questioned the need for a new managing authority since the Agriculture and Rural Development Council and the ministries of Agriculture and Environment are already charged with caring for the basin.
“The government is not interested in the environmental impact or the benefit to the nation,” he said. “They are more concerned about how they can pocket money for licenses to the private companies interested in the area,” he added.
Tom Evans, technical adviser for the Wildlife Conservation Society, said Thursday that oil and gas exploration would have a limited effect on the environment.
“The potential risks of exploration is relatively small,” he said, adding however, that threats to the environment could arise if oil was actually discovered.