Thu, Aug 15, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Nationalism takes a backseat to attracting oil exploration

The message from oil firms to resource owners is clear — if you want us to invest time and money in developing your resource, you must offer competitive terms

By John Kemp  /  Reuters

Oil and gas companies were left to accept defeat and whatever terms were offered to them.

Petroleum leases are complicated, but most of the seemingly arcane disputes boil to down to a simple question of who gets to keep the benefits from periods of high prices.

For the oil majors, exceptional profits produced from some fields during periods of high prices are needed to compensate for the enormous risks they undertake in exploration and production, and making long-term capital investments. The extraordinary profits pay for all the wells that come up dry and for the poor returns in years of low prices.

However, for resource owners, exceptional profits can look like an unearned windfall, a gift of nature which should be kept by the people of the host country.

It is mostly a matter of perspective. Resource owners evaluate profits on a well-by-well, field-by-field or at most a nationwide level, and usually at only one point in time.

Exploration and production companies evaluate profits on a portfolio basis across the whole set of their assets and over the entire price cycle.

So what to a resource owner appears to be unjustified windfall profits may appear to an operator to be merely a high-performing element in an average-performing portfolio.

The last three years have seen a remarkable shift.

References to resource nationalism have declined markedly and, instead, a race is on to offer better terms and attract investment.

The UK has eased taxes to reverse declining investment and production of offshore oil and gas. It is offering generous terms for onshore shale exploration. Russia is seeking foreign technology and companies to help develop its Siberian and Arctic fields. Even hyper-nationalist Argentina is offering more generous pricing and taxation to attract investment in its giant Vaca Muerta shale formation.

In the late 1990s and 2000s, numerous oil companies were chasing a handful of new opportunities. Now, thanks to the shale revolution as well as advances in offshore drilling, the set of potential investments has widened dramatically, outpacing the number of international companies pursuing them and the amount of capital available to be employed. The result is a noticeable shift in the balance of negotiating power.

Fiscal terms and resource nationalism tend to follow a fairly well defined cycle.

In the early phases of the development of a new oil field or province, host countries are keen to attract investment and offer attractive terms, especially if a field requires very large amounts of capital and complex technology to exploit it.

Later, once a province is more mature, the infrastructure is built and the technology problems have been solved, the bargaining position of operating companies weakens and governments impose tougher terms, as well as revising existing contracts.

Nationalism and fiscal terms tend to be stiffer when prices are high and rising, and governments are confident they can capture future revenue windfalls. They fade when prices are low or falling, and governments become anxious about the need to attract investment to maintain production and revenues.

Both shale and deepwater exploration have changed industry dynamics, although in different ways.

Shale is a low cost, low risk and relatively straightforward technology, so it should favor resource owners. However, it remains untested in most countries, needs a large number of new wells to be drilled and the gas which is often produced needs expensive liquefaction facilities to make it transportable and realize the value.

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