In landmark deal, ConocoPhillips has agreed to sell its 30% stake in the Greater Sunrise natural gas and condensate fields in the East Timor Sea to the government of East Timor for US$350 million. For the first major company to enter the fledgling nation back in 2006, ConocoPhillips has spearheaded much of the upstream developments in Timor-Leste, as the country is also known, which still form the backbone of its economy. With the great prizes waiting in Greater Sunrise, why this sale and why now?
Because the tectonic plates powering Timorese upstream has shifted. After years of disagreements – including a spying scandal that was taken to the international court – Timor-Leste and Australia signed a historic treaty this year in March. The deal settled the dispute over the maritime boundary between the two countries, delineating the sea and the position of the Greater Sunrise fields officially for the first time. Estimates suggest that up to US$65 billion in potential reserves lie within Greater Sunrise, and for East Timor, developing this is necessary to replace its maturing Bayu Undan condensate field. Though the issue of whether the gas should be piped to East Timor or Australia for processing remains yet resolved, the sale by ConocoPhillips can be seen as a move to bolster the position of the government in the development of the field.
With Asia’s appetite for LNG unabating, the government of East Timor wants to push for an onshore LNG liquefaction plant in the country, included associated pipelines and an FPSO. In a statement following the sale, ConocoPhillips notes that it ‘differed with the government on its proposed development plan for Sunrise but we recognise the importance of the field to the nation’ – perhaps a veiled reference that ConocoPhillips would prefer the option of piping the gas to Australia, seen as the more viable and economic action but that its hand was forced. The Sunrise and Trobadour fields that form Greater Sunrise are geographically closer to East Timor, but building a debut LNG project of a scale required of Greater Sunrise is seen as a major risk, but also a matter of grave national importance. It certainly gives an opportunity for Timor GAP – the state oil firm – more say in the development of the field, bringing it to the table with other partners in the Greater Sunrise project including Woodside, Shell and Osaka Gas. As operator, Woodside has a preference for an FLNG processing plant, similar to Shell’s Prelude, but as the second-largest partner in the joint venture, the government may now dictate otherwise.
More squabbles will follow, but this move changes up the dynamics of the project in favour of the tiny nation. The next step is to create a viable development plan that will appease all project partners, and that is the harder part. But one thing is for certain; the commercialisation of Greater Sunrise has now closer to reality, more than four decades after it was discovered.
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