Easwaran Kanason

Co - founder of NrgEdge
Last Updated: March 3, 2021
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Drilling & Completions
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It was a good run while it lasted. Almost exactly a decade ago, the military junta in Myanmar was dissolved, following civilian elections. The country’s figurehead, Aung San Suu Kyi, was released from house arrest to lead, following in the footsteps of her father. Although her reputation has since been tarnished with the Rohingya crisis, she remains beloved by most of her countrymen, and her installation as Myanmar’s de facto leader lead to a golden economic age. Sanctions were eased, trade links were restored, and investment flowed in, not least in the energy sector. Yet the military still remained a powerful force, lurking in the background. In early February, they bared their fangs. Following an election in November 2020 in which Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won an outright majority in both houses of Parliament. A coup d’etat was instigated, with the Tatmadaw – the Burmese military – decrying fraud in the election. Key politicians were arrested, and rule returned to the military.

For many Burmese, this was a return to a dark past that many thought was firmly behind them. Widespread protests erupted, quickly turning violent. The Tatmadaw still has an iron grip, but it has created some bizarre situations – ordinary Burmese citizens calling on Facebook and foreign governments to impose sanctions on their country, while the Myanmar ambassador to the United Nations was fired for making an anti-army speech at the UN General Assembly.

The path forward for Myanmar from this point is unclear. The Tatmadaw has declared a state of emergency lasting up to a year, promising new elections by the end of 2021. There is little doubt that the NLD will win yet another supermajority in the election, IF they are fair and free. But that is a big if. Meanwhile, the coup threatens to return Myanmar to the pariah state that it was pre-2010. And threatens to abort all the grand economic progress made since.

In the decade since military rule was abolished, development in Myanmar has been rapid. In the capital city Yangon, glittering new malls have been developed. The Ministry of Energy in 2009 was housed in a crumbling former high school; today, it occupies a sprawling complex in the new administrative capital of Naypyidaw. While not exactly up to the level of the Department of Energy in Washington DC, it is certainly no longer than ministry that was once reputed to take up to three years to process exploration licences for offshore oil and gas blocks.

And it is that very future that is now at stake. Energy has been a great focus for investment in Myanmar, drawn by the rich offshore deposits in the Andaman Sea and the country’s location as a possible pipeline route between the Middle East and inland China. Estimates suggest that – based on pre-coup trends – Myanmar was likely to attract over US$1.1 billion in upstream investment in 2023, more than four times projected for 2021 and almost 20 times higher than 2011. The funds would not only be directed at maintaining production at the current Yadana, Yetagun, Zawtika and Shwe gas fields – where offshore production is mainly exported to Thailand, but also upcoming megaprojects such as Woodside and Total’s A-6 deepwater natural gas and PTTEP’s Aung Sinka Block M3 developments.

The coup now presents foreign investors in Myanmar’s upstream energy sector with a conundrum and reputational risk. Stay, and risk being seen as abetting an undemocratic government? Or leave, and risk being flushing away years of hard work? The home governments of foreign investors such as Total, Chevron, PTTEP, Woodside, Petronas, ONGC, Nippon Oil, Kogas, POSCO, Sumitomo, Mitsui and others have already condemned the coup. For now these companies are hoping that foreign pressure will resolve the situation in a short enough timeframe to allow business to resume. Australia’s Woodside Petroleum has already called the coup a ‘transitionary issue’ claiming that it will not affect its exploration plans, while other operators such as Total and Petronas have focused on the safety of their employees as they ‘monitor the evolving situation’.

But the longer the coup lasts without a resolution satisfactory to the international community and the longer the protests last (and the more deaths that result from that), the more untenable the position of the foreign upstream players will be. Asian investors, especially the Chinese, mainly through CNPC/PetroChina, and the Thais, through PTTEP - will be relatively insulated, but American and European majors face bigger risks. This could jeopardise key projects such as the Myanmar-to-China crude oil and natural gas pipeline project (a 771km connection to Yunnan), two LNG-to-power projects (Thaketa and Thilawa, meant to deal with the country’s chronic blackouts) and the massive Block A-6 gas development in the Shwe Yee Htun field by Woodside which just kicked off a fourth drilling campaign in December.

It is a big unknown. The Tatmadaw has proven to be impervious to foreign criticism in the past, ignoring even the most stringent sanctions thrown their way. In fact, it was a huge surprise that the army even relinquished power back in 2010. But the situation has changed. The Myanmar population is now more connected and more aware, while the army has profited off the opening of the economy. The economic consequences of returning to its darker days might be enough to trigger a resolution. But that’s not a guarantee. What is certain is that the coup will have a lasting effect on energy investment and plans in Myanmar. How long and how deep is a question that only the Tatmadaw can answer. 

Market Outlook:

  • Crude price trading range: Brent – US$63-65/b, WTI – US$60-63/b
  • The slow-but-sure recovery in Texan energy infrastructure following the big freeze has caused crude oil benchmarks to retreat somewhat, with all eyes now focusing on OPEC+ as it meets to decide its supply quotas for April and beyond
  • Some form of supply easing is expected, given that the market is showing signs of tight supply, but OPEC+ is still split on how aggressive it can be; Saudi Arabia is advocating caution while most others, led by Russia, favour a bolder easing given current prices
  • While OPEC+ supply will be keenly watched as an indicator of future crude trends, supply elsewhere is picking up, with the Baker Hughes survey of active oil and gas rigs in the USA crossing the 400-site level for the first time in over a year, with gains mainly from onshore shale drillers tempted back after being wiped up last year

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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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