By Jonny Hogg
KINSHASA (Reuters) - The Democratic Republic of Congo will allow exploration work inside Africa's oldest national park if significant oil deposits are found there, the country's hydrocarbons minister said on Saturday.
Congo is keen to expand its underdeveloped oil sector, which currently produces only 26,000 barrels a day despite oil-rich areas in both the east and west of the country.
British oil company Soco International was earlier this year given permission to carry out aerial surveys on Block 5, a block of land near the border with Uganda, but the move has faced fierce opposition from environmental groups.
Most of the concession lies within Virunga National Park, one of Africa's most biodiverse areas, and a last refuge for the region's famous mountain gorillas.
"The DRC has the right to know what resources it has under the earth, even if it's in the park or the forest, anywhere," minister Crispin Atama Tabe told Reuters in an interview.
It is currently against Congolese law to prospect or exploit minerals inside the country's national parks, but Atama Tabe said the legislation could be reviewed.
"We're going to evaluate the quantity of the deposit. If it's very significant we'll compare the value of the park with the oil... We'll see whether we'll respect the park or not. It's up to us," he said, adding that exploration could take up to three years.
Block 5 is part of the Albertine Graben, an area which has already attracted oil major Total, which also holds stakes in both DRC and Uganda.
Earlier this month Uganda upped its estimated oil reserves to 3.5 billion barrels, and Atama Tabe said the Graben remains the most attractive area for oil exploration in Congo, despite also lying at the heart of recent instability which has seen government troops clash with rebels, forcing hundreds of thousands of people to flee.
Relations between Kampala and Kinshasa have been strained in recent years over border demarcation issues, but Tabe said good relations would be maintained and discussions over a possible pipeline from the DRC via Uganda to Mombasa in Kenya remain a possibility.
Atama Tabe said the government is also keen to push through a specialized hydrocarbons code to regulate the sector during the current three-month parliamentary session, and said it would be in line with international standards.
"When (investors) come, it's important that they find themselves at ease with legislation that is basically the same as other countries," he said.
OFFSHORE, KIVU GAS
Atama Tabe also said he hoped that Congo will reach a deal with Angola over disputed blocks off the west coast of the country within six months.
The two countries have yet to find a resolution over how to manage the so-called Common Interest Zone created in 2004 and could see Congo receiving royalties from production already under way there.
"There is a significant deposit there, and we can expect 150,000 barrels a day, just from that zone... Angola is very happy, negotiations are advancing without question" Atama Tabe stated.
The minister said his ministry would focus a substantial amount of its estimated $700 million budget on how to exploit gas reserves in Lake Kivu, which lies along the border with Rwanda.
Relations between the two countries have been strained over allegations that Rwanda is backing Congolese rebels. But Tabe said dialogue was continuing over gas extraction to provide electricity for the region, but also because the highly volcanic area could be at risk of an explosion if gas from the lake was not drained.
Rwanda is already pumping the gas and Congo is hoping to launch a tendering process by the end of the year.
"There's lots of accords signed with Rwanda, because this concerns both countries. If the lake explodes, it won't just be Congolese that die, it'll be Rwandans too," Atama Tabe said.
Lake Kivu contains methane and carbon dioxide.
(Editing by Bate Felix and Hugh Lawson)