Easwaran Kanason

Co - founder of NrgEdge
Last Updated: August 22, 2019
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Business Trends
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A lot of complications arise when a government changes. Particularly if the new government comes in on a mandate to reverse alleged deficiencies and corruption of previous governments. This is amplified when significant natural resources are involved. It has happened in the past – when Iran nationalised its oil industry by kicking out BP – and it could happen again in the future – in Guyana where the promise of oil riches in the hands of foreign firms has already caused grumbles. And it is also happening right now in Papua New Guinea, as the new government led by Prime Minister James Marape took aim at the Papua LNG deal.

Negotiated by the previous government of Peter O’Neill, the state’s new position that is the current gas deal is ‘disadvantageous’ to country. A complex set of manoeuvres – accusing O’Neill of multiple levels of corruption – led to a proposed vote of no confidence and an eventual resignation. With the departure of O’Neill, public opinion on the Papua LNG project (as well as the PNG LNG project) switched from being viewed as a boon to the economy to one of unequal terms that would not compensate the nation fairly for its resources.

So, despite a previous assurance in early August that the new government of Papua New Guinea would stand by the previous gas deal agreed with the Papua LNG stakeholders in April, Marape sent a team led by the Minister of Petroleum Kerenga Kua to Singapore to renegotiate with the project’s lead operator Total.

As the meeting was announced, suggestions pointed to a hardline position by Papua New Guinea… that they could ‘walk away from a new deal’ if the new terms were not acceptable. In a statement, Kua stated that the negotiations could ‘work out well or even disastrously’. From Total’s part, CEO Patrick Pouyanne said in July that he expected the government to respect the gas deal while Oil Search stated that it was seeking ‘further clarity on the state’s position’. The gas deal covers framework of the Papua LNG project, which was scheduled to enter FEED phase this year with FID expected in 2020, drawing gas from the giant onshore Elk-Antelope fields ahead of planned first LNG by 2024. So, the stakes are high.

With both sides locked into their positions, reports from Singapore suggested that the negotiations broke down into a ‘Mexican standoff’. No grand new deal was announced, and it can therefore be inferred that no progress was made. There is a possibility that PNG could abandon the deal altogether and seek new partners under more favourable terms, but to do so would be a colossal waste of time, given that Papua LNG is nearing a decade in development. Total and ExxonMobil have already raised the possibility of legal moves if the deal is aborted, with compensation running into billions – billions that the PNG government will not have unless the Papua LNG project goes ahead.

But the implications of the deal or no-deal are even wider. The PNG state has already stated that it will look at the planned expansion of the PNG LNG project (led by ExxonMobil and Santos) next, which draws from the P’nyang field. Renegotiation of the current gas deals in PNG may have populist appeal but have serious implications – alienating two of the largest oil and gas supermajors and two of PNG’s largest foreign investors could lead to a monetary gap and a mood of distrust that PNG may be unable to ever fill. Hardline positions are a good starting position, but eventual moderation is required to ever strike a deal.

Papua LNG Factsheet:

  • Ownership: Total (31.1%), ExxonMobil (28.3%), Oil Search (17.7%), state (22.5%)
  • Feed: Elk-Antelope onshore fields,
  • Capacity: 5.4 million tons per annum
  • Structure: 2 trains of 2.7 mtpa capacity each

Read more:
PNG papua new guinea france oil search total LNG agreement national oil natural gas
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Royal Dutch Shell Poised To Become Just Shell

On 10 December 2021, if all goes to plan Royal Dutch Shell will become just Shell. The energy supermajor will move its headquarters from The Hague in The Netherlands to London, UK. At least three-quarters of the company’s shareholders must vote in favour of the change at the upcoming general meeting, which has been sold by Shell as a means of simplifying its corporate structure and better return value to shareholders, as well as be ‘better positioned to seize opportunities and play a leading role in the energy transition’. In doing so, it will no longer meet Dutch conditions for ‘royal’ designation, dropping a moniker that has defined the company through decades of evolution since 1907.

But why this and why now?

There is a complex web of reasons why, some internal and some external but the ultimate reason boils down to improving growth sustainability. Royal Dutch Shell was born through the merger of Shell Transport and Trading Company (based in the UK) and Royal Dutch (based in The Netherlands) in 1907, with both companies engaging in exploration activities ranging from seashells to crude oil. Unified across international borders, Royal Dutch Shell emerged as Europe’s answer to John D Rockefeller’s Standard Oil empire, as the race to exploit oil (and later natural gas) reserves spilled out over the world. Along the way, Royal Dutch Shell chalked up a number of achievements including establishing the iconic Brent field in the North Sea to striking the first commercial oil in Nigeria. Unlike Standard Oil which was dissolved into 34 smaller companies in 1911, Royal Dutch Shell remained intact, operating as two entities until 2005, when they were finally combined in a dual-nationality structure: incorporated in the UK, but residing in the Netherlands. This managed to satisfy the national claims both countries make on the supermajor, second only to ExxonMobil in revenue and profits but proved to be costly to maintain. In 2020, fellow Anglo-Dutch conglomerate Unilever also ditched its dual structure, opting to be based fully out of the City of London. In that sense, Shell is following the direction of the wind, as forces in its (soon to be former) home country turn sour.

There is a specific grievance that Royal Dutch Shell has with the Dutch government, the 15% dividend tax collected for Dutch-domiciled companies. It is the reason why Unilever abandoned Rotterdam and is now the reason why Shell is abandoning The Hague. And this point is particularly existentialist for Shell, since its share prices has been battered in recent years following the industry downturn since 2015, the global pandemic and being in the crosshairs of climate change activists as an emblem of why the world’s average temperatures are going haywire. The latter has already caused the largest Dutch state pension fund ABP to stop investing in fossil fuels, thereby divesting itself of Royal Dutch Shell. This was largely a symbolic move, but as religious figures will know, symbols themselves carry much power. To combat this, Shell has done two things. First, it has positioned itself to be at the forefront of energy transition, announcing ambitious emissions reductions plans in line with its European counterparts to become carbon neutral by 2050. Second, it is looking to bump up its dividend payouts after slashing them through the depths of the Covid-19 pandemic and accelerating share buybacks to remain the bluest of blue-chip stocks. But then, earlier this year, a Dutch court ruled that Shell’s emissions targets were ‘not ambitious enough’, ordering a stricter aim within a tighter timeframe. And the 15% dividend tax remains – even though Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s coalition government has been attempting to scrap it, with (it is presumed) some lobbying from Royal Dutch Shell and Unilever.

As simplistic it is to think that Shell is leaving for London believes the citizens of the Netherlands has turned its back on the company, the ultimate reason was the dividend tax. Reportedly, CEO Ben van Buerden called up Mark Rutte on Sunday informing him of the planned move. Rutte’s reaction, it is said was of dismay. And he embarked on a last-ditch effort to persuade Royal Dutch Shell to change its mind, by immediately lobbying his government’s coalition partners to back an abolition of the dividend tax. The reaction was perhaps not what he expected, with left-wing and green parties calling Shell’s threat ‘blackmail’. With democracy drawing a line, Shell decided to walk; or at least present an exit plan endorsed by its Board to be voted by shareholders. Many in the Netherlands see Shell’s exit and the loss of the moniker Royal Dutch – as a blow to national pride, especially since the country has been basking in the glow of expanded reputation as a result of post-Brexit migration of financial activities to Amsterdam from London. The UK, on the other hand, sees Shell’s decision and Unilever’s – as an endorsement of the country’s post-Brexit potential.

The move, if passed and in its initial stages, will be mainly structural, transferring the tax residence of Shell to London. Just ten top executives including van Buerden and CFO Jessica Uhl will be making the move to London. Three major arms – Projects and Technology, Global Upstream and Integrated Gas and Renewable Energies – will remain in The Hague. As will Shell’s massive physical reach on Dutch soil: the huge integrated refinery in Pernis, the biofuels hub in Rotterdam, the country’s first offshore wind farm and the mammoth Porthos carbon capture project that will funnel emissions from Rotterdam to be stored in empty North Sea gas fields. And Shell’s troubles with activists will still continue. British climate change activists are as, if not more aggressive as their Dutch counterpart, this being the country where Extinction Rebellion was born. Perhaps more of a threat is activist investor Third Point, which recently acquired a chunk of Shell shares and has been advocating splitting the company into two – a legacy business for fossil fuels and a futures-focused business for renewables.

So Shell’s business remains, even though its address has changed. In the grand scheme of things, never mind the small matter of Dutch national pride – Royal Dutch Shell’s roadmap to remain an investment icon and a major driver of energy transition will continue in its current form. This is a quibble about money or rather, tax – that will have little to no impact on Shell’s operations or on its ambitions. Royal Dutch Shell is poised to become just Shell. Different name and a different house, but the same contents. Unless, of course, Queen Elizabeth II decides to provide royal assent, in which case, Shell might one day become Royal British Shell.

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