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Falklands dispute and oil; Experts: island areas look promising, but too early to tell

For the world's major oil companies, the feud over the Falkland Islands is between different petroleum geologists, as well as between Argentina and Great Britain.

One theory holds that the Falklands could be sitting atop a major oil field. This possibility explains the considerable interest shown by such companies as Exxon and Arco now engaged in exporatory work off the Argentine coast. It also is one reason political analysts give for the tenacity of both British and Argentine claims to the Falklands.

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A second opinion, supported by recent work done for the US Department of Energy by the US Geological Survey, says that Argentina's oil-rich sedimentary beds both onshore and offshore may end well before reaching the midway point between Argentina and the Falklands.

The oil industry can only resolve the question of the Falklands' oil potential by drilling exploratory wells. Preliminary steps have been taken but the major work remains ahead. According to some experts, the combination of extreme weather conditions in the Falklands area and current low crude oil prices could delay further work for as much as 20 years. Other experts see production possible in the area within five to seven years -- if the British and Argentinians resolve their political differences.

Three years ago, before British-Argentine relations soured, the countries jointly licensed seismic surveys. These revealed complex rock structures that could prove to be oil-bearing. But any final estimate of potential oil reserves, or even whether there is oil, depends on actually drilling into the undersea structures.

Bernardo F. Grossling, an international petroleum expert formerly with the US Geological Survey and currently with the Inter-American Development Bank, says that ''many people from the petroleum industry consider the area off Argentina one of the most promising in the world, and I agree with them.''

Dr. Grossling says that the sugar-like Springhill sandstone formation first discovered in Chile in 1945 has been proved to stretch far into Argentina and its offshore areas. Onshore, this oil-rich formation's average thickness is 30 meters. Offshore, he says, this same layer is up to 180 meters thick and laced with oil and gas.

Other petroleum geologists say it is far too early even to guess at whether oil may be found under the Falkland Islands. Dr. Albert W. Bally, former chief geologist for Shell Oil Company and now chairman of Rice University's geology department, however, sees a clear ''oil incentive'' behind Argentina's attempt to reclaim the Falklands.

According to a petroleum expert at the World Bank, the possibility of oil riches is very attractive to Argentina.

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''With internal economic and political problems the government is naturally going to take action to divert public attention away from these problems,'' he says.

An Exxon Corporation spokesman explains that results are being assessed now from offshore test wells recently completed by Esso Exploradora Y Productora Argentina Inc. A spokesman for another major oil firm simply states that ''there are indications of thick sediments out there.''

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