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hdr - go west

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    By Matthew Tostevin
    ABIDJAN, Aug 30 (Reuters) - When European traders began to ply West Africa's coast they marked their charts with whatever they found to deal in -- pepper grains, ivory, gold or slaves.
    Some think the map of the future might be marked with one word -- oil.
    New technology and the search for secure supplies away from the political dangers of the Middle East are driving West African offshore exploration far from the region's traditional producers.
    If, or where, the hunt succeeds, it could transform some of the world's poorest and most unstable economies.
    But the lesson from those African countries already nourished by oil riches is that it could also help shore up corrupt and dictatorial governments or even fan war.
    Most attention is currently focused on the northwest African country of Mauritania, where drilling this month by a group led by Australia's Woodside Petroleum confirmed last year's oil strike.
    The first Chinguetti well inspired the hope of finds in unexpected areas just about anywhere around West Africa's bulge into the Atlantic -- drawing interest from more than just the small independent firms.
    The Mauritanian field has been estimated to hold at least 65 million barrels of recoverable reserves, but with the possibility of much more in the neighbourhood.

    "Mauritania is the most mature, however there are other significant prospects," said Peter Dolan of Fusion Oil and Gas, a minority stake-holder in Chinguetti and in the front line of small firms hoping to make it big off West Africa.
    "The Woodside group joint venture is a very substantial investment. Added to the fact that Amerada Hess has made a substantial commitment to farm into blocks off West Africa, I think it sends the right signals for the region," he said.
    Down from Morocco and Mauritania, the search bends around through Senegal, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast and Ghana towards the proven giants of Nigeria and Angola and newer Gulf of Guinea hotspots like Equatorial Guinea.
    Finding a new Equatorial Guinea, whose oil production has zoomed from almost nothing a decade ago to more than 200,000 barrels per day is the dream.
    "We need to diversify our economy from gold, cocoa and timber exports," said Ghana's Energy Minister Albert Kan-Dapaah.
    "If we can do that by striking oil, which we have reason to believe is available, we should go full steam ahead."
    The search has been helped by technological advances that make it economic to find and pump oil in ever deeper waters, even if prices slip from current levels.
    Added political impetus has come from the United States, seeking secure oil supplies away from the
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