OSLO: In a world growing increasingly worried about oil supplies, there is one large white spot on the fossil fuel map, eyed eagerly by both Norway and Russia, but accessible to neither without a treaty.

The border between Norway and Russia in the freezing Barents Sea is fuzzy, resulting in a disputed surface of 155,000 square kilometres (62,000 square miles) which almost certainly contains large oil reserves.

Oslo and Moscow have been negotiating over access for more than three decades, ever since the International Law of the Sea was changed in the 1970s to allow a country to claim the right to petroleum on the continental shelf as far as 200 nautical miles from shore.

But to no avail. When Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik of Norway two years ago, he joked: “Both the prime minister and I were children when the negotiations began. We have decided between us to solve the problem before we have retired.”

But the funny side of the standoff is increasingly lost on both sides, as the oil price reached new record highs last week, prompting the OPEC oil cartel, to which neither Russia nor Norway belongs, to agree to a boost in production.

Russia, the world’s second-largest oil exporter after Saudi Arabia, and Norway, number three, are getting increasingly frustrated with the high cost of squeezing oil out of diminishing oil fields, and could use fresh reserves.

Oil companies operating in Norway are becoming increasingly reluctant to search for oil.

According to Statistics Norway, only 900 million kroner went into prospecting in Norway during the first quarter of 2004, only slightly more than the lowest figure ever, 700 million, in the fourth quarter of 2003.

According to unconfirmed reports, there is already agreement on two-thirds of the disputed area, but until there is a deal on the rest, both countries have to refrain from drilling.

“Prior to 1982 both Norwegians and Russians made seismic mapping of the area. Even if there is no new information, the old information can be enhanced with new computer technology,” said Arild Moe, assistant director at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute in Oslo which specialises in resource management and energy politics.- AFP