Excitement about one of the last - and potentially richest - unexplored regions for oil and gas in the world grew yesterday as 40 companies attended a presentation in London on the Falkland Islands' plans to explore offshore. Reports also emerged yesterday of plans to improve the rickety air communications between Chile and the remote archipelago.
In Stanley, the village capital of the Falklands, news of oil company interest came at the same time as earlier rumours of Argentina acquiring a direct interest in Falklands' waters were dispelled.
"People here think this could be the first day of a new era," said Patrick Watts of the Falkland Islands Broadcasting Service.
Councillor John Cheek, a member of the Islands' Legislative Council, said that yesterday's turnout in London fulfilled expectations. A similar presentation will take place next Wednesday in Houston, Texas.
On offer are rights to drill in 12 blocks north of the Falkland Islands and seven to the south. The 19 areas comprise 44,000 square kilometres, which for decades have been thought to contain oil and natural gas in quantities larger than those presently being tapped by Chile and Argentina in their offshore waters nearby.
Applications have to be in by 2 July next year for exploration licences, which will be issued in September 1996. Interested companies, which may include Argentine firms provided they do not exercise majority control over any area or act as operator, may be given rights for three initial periods of five, seven and 10 years, followed by a production phase of 35 years.
The Falkland Islands government has made clear that it will apply strict regulations to protect the environment.
Much-improved air links between Chile and the Falkland Islands could be inaugurated as early as next month. Aerovias DAP, a Chilean airline based in the southern port of Punta Arenas, which currently operates a Twin Otter on an uncomfortable five-hour flight without toilet facilities, is negotiating for a new aircraft, possibly a Fokker F 28 or BAe 148.
Such aircraft could fly from the Islands' Mount Pleasant airport to Punta Arenas in just over an hour and continue to Santiago, the Chilean capital, to connect with British Airways flights to London.