French Guiana offshore oil drilling to restart: lawmakers

Anglo-Dutch group Shell will soon be allowed to resume oil exploration off the coast of French Guiana, lawmakers from the overseas French department said Wednesday.

The exploration "will be allowed to restart", probably on Monday, said a lawmaker after a meeting with the French minister for the overseas departments, Victorin Lurel.

Two other lawmakers, Georges Patient and Chantal Berthelot, confirmed the relaunch of the project.

"The prefecture has signed the authorisation today, Wednesday, and so the exploration can restart Monday," said Berthelot, noting that Shell's forage vessel had arrived Tuesday as planned on Guiana waters.

The project was suspended shortly after the new French administration took office earlier in June, as France began re-examining Shell's licences in Guiana over environmental concerns.

Environment minister Nicole Bricq and the minister for re-industrialisation Arnaud Montebourg said in a joint statement then that the Shell project "insufficiently... took into account environmental problems."

But on Wednesday, Patient said the exploration would now go ahead as "progress has been made in terms of environmental guarantees as well as economic guarantees."

Shell holds a "Guiana Maritime" permit to search for oil with partners that include the French oil group Total, Tullow Oil and Northpet Investments.

The permit was issued in 2001, has been extended three times, and is valid until 2016.

Shell is responsible for the drilling and was waiting for authorisation from French prefectures to begin.

When contacted by AFP, a spokeswoman for the oil giant declined to comment before receiving official notification of the authorisation.

Guiana Nature Environment said however that it was ready to contest the permits.

"We are waiting to see what is in the authorisations signed Wednesday," said Christian Roudge of the local environmental protection group.

"We know that there are weaknesses in the Shell dossier and elements which go against the environment code, including on hydrocarbon discharge into the sea," he said.

"Depending on what the permits say, we will attack them on any problematic areas," Roudge told AFP.

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