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All those oil and gas deposits everyone wants in the South China Sea may not even be there

As it stands, six countries claim conflicting territorial rights in the long-simmering South China Sea dispute. As anyone will tell you, one of the main drivers of this conflict is the “sizable deposits of oil and gas” believed to reside in the area. But what if that’s actually a lie? A new report by the ...

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EAST SEA - JULY 27: In this handout from the U.S. Navy, the South Korean Navy amphibious landing ship ROKS Dokdo is underway in the Sea of Japan with the guided-missile destroyers USS Lassen and USS Chung-Hoon. The Republic of Korea and the United States are conducting the combined alliance maritime and air readiness exercise "Invincible Spirit" in the seas east of the Korean peninsula from July 25-28, 2010. (Photo by Adam K. Thomas/U.S. Navy via Getty Images)

As it stands, six countries claim conflicting territorial rights in the long-simmering South China Sea dispute. As anyone will tell you, one of the main drivers of this conflict is the “sizable deposits of oil and gas” believed to reside in the area. But what if that’s actually a lie? A new report by the U.S. Energy and Information Administration finds that the contested areas of the South China Sea do not have large conventional oil and natural gas resources:

The Spratly Islands and Paracel Islands are two of the most contested areas (see dark blue islands on map above). However, unlike other parts of the South China Sea, these areas have not been assessed to hold large (conventional) resources of oil and natural gas….

EIA’s analysis shows that most fields containing discovered oil and natural gas are clustered in uncontested parts of the South China Sea, close to shorelines of the coastal countries, and not near the contested islands. Industry sources suggest almost no oil and less than 100 billion cubic feet of natural gas in proved and probable reserves exist in fields near the Spratly Islands. The Paracel Island territory has even less natural gas and no oil.

Below is an EIA map of proved and probable oil and gas reserves in the area:

So maybe going to war over the disputed islands isn’t such a great idea? Worth considering.

John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson

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