Australia, East Timor sign deal on maritime border, gas field

UNITED NATIONS, NEW YORK (REUTERS) - East Timor and Australia have signed a treaty at the United Nations in New York to resolve a long-running dispute over their maritime border and struck a deal on how to share revenue from the offshore Greater Sunrise gas field.

East Timor, also known as Timor Leste, will receive a bigger share of the revenue than Australia depending on the development concept - 70 per cent of the revenue if the gas is piped to the tiny country or 80 per cent if the gas is piped to Australia for processing.

The agreement also establishes a maritime boundary in the Timor Sea for the first time. Australia had sought a boundary aligned with its continental shelf, but East Timor argued the border should lie half way between it and Australia - placing much of the Greater Sunrise field under its control.

"With this treaty we open a new chapter in relations between Australia and Timor-Leste," said Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who signed the treaty on Tuesday (March 6) alongside East Timor's Deputy Minister of the Prime Minister for the Delimitation of Borders Hermenegildo Augusto Cabral Pereira.

The protracted dispute had led the owners of Greater Sunrise - Woodside Petroleum, ConocoPhillips, Royal Dutch Shell and Japan's Osaka Gas - to shelve the project.

The Greater Sunrise field is estimated to hold 5.1 trillion cubic feet of gas and 226 million barrels of condensates, which analysts have previously estimated could be worth US$40 billion (S$52.6 billion). However, development could be at least a decade away, with Woodside looking at the latter half of the next decade.

Australian Associated Press reported shortly before the signing ceremony that East Timor had accused Australia of colluding with the oil companies to have the gas piped to Australia for processing.

"Australia rejects absolutely any suggestion that we have acted other than in utmost good faith throughout this conciliation process," Ms Bishop told reporters at the United Nations.

"The way is now clear for Timor-Leste, as the majority beneficiary of the division of the resource, to find a way with the joint venture partners to develop Greater Sunrise in an economically viable fashion," she said.

East Timor had been pushing hard for the building of an onshore processing plant to boost its economy. Ms Bishop said Australia does not have a position and that the main concern was that any project was economically viable.

"It's a conciliation process, it was never meant to be easy. We had ups and downs in this 22, 23 months," said Mr Pereira, adding that the focus should be on Tuesday's treaty signing.

Ending years of opposition, Australia agreed in 2017 to accept Dili's formal notice to terminate an agreement to split petroleum revenue equally from Greater Sunrise and set a 50-year timetable for negotiating a permanent sea boundary.

Dili had taken the long-running maritime border dispute to the Permanent Court of Arbitration, an intergovernmental organisation based at The Hague, which ordered compulsory arbitration between the two parties.