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Pacific Island nation battles oil giant for LNG profits: part one

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Bloomberg is reporting that Papua New Guinea came out on the short end of a US$19 billion development with Exxon Mobil Corp. to build one of Asia-Pacific’s biggest energy projects.

But as the company pushes to expand the venture, the government is vowing that round two may require a much bigger payday for the locals.

By most accounts, the LNG business that Exxon and partners built from scratch is an engineering and commercial success. The PNG LNG venture, which started operating in 2014, is delivering more fuel than expected to Asian economic giants Japan and China. It is so promising that the US company – with annual revenue 10 times larger than Papua New Guinea’s economy – declared the Pacific island a key building block for its future growth and plans to double output.

Trouble is, the original deal reached a decade ago has failed to deliver the windfall to Papua New Guinea that the government and an Exxon-commissioned study predicted. An International Monetary Fund analysis showed “quite limited benefits” for the country, which granted Exxon generous rights to recover certain costs before paying taxes or fees. While the initial investment was welcome, the government has formed a new team to negotiate better terms before it approves the proposed expansion.

“There is a general view that Papua New Guinea gave away too much for the first LNG project,” said Peter Koim, a member of the negotiating team who is also director of the country’s Gas Project Coordinating Office. For the next round “the country will not give away concessions as was the case in the PNG LNG project,” he said.

PNG LNG produces gas from wells in the forested mountains known as the Highlands, and sends it 700 km southeast via pipeline to a processing plant on the shores of Caution Bay, near the capital, Port Moresby. The gas is super-chilled to liquid form and loaded onto special tankers for shipment overseas. Originally designed to process a maximum of 6.9 million tpy, the plant produced more than 8.2 million in 2017.

Exxon last year spent as much as US$3.9 billion buying access to additional reserves and drilling rights in the country and is working with partners including Australia’s Oil Search Ltd. and France’s Total SA on a separate US$13 billion venture known as Papua LNG. The development would add 8 million t of additional annual processing capacity at the existing PNG LNG plant, but tap gas deposits in a different part of the country and require a new pipeline.

The country will negotiate separately with Exxon and Total on the different projects that will contribute to an overall expected rise in the nation’s gas exports, Koim said.

Demand for the gas has been strong. Long-term supply contracts were signed with buyers including chemical makers and utilities that are as much as 4500 km across the sea from Papua New Guinea, which is located on an island just north of Australia’s Queensland state. With global consumption booming, analysts see a shortage of LNG coming in the early part of next decade, right when an expansion project would come online if work were to start soon.

Prospects are so promising that Exxon’s Chief Executive Officer Darren Woods said as recently as March that he is counting on Papua New Guinea and several other countries to help reverse declining output at the company, one of the world’s largest energy suppliers. Irving, Texas-based Exxon plans about US$200 billion in capital expenditures through 2025, including in Mozambique, Brazil and Guyana, as well as America’s Permian Basin.

 

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A more demanding Papua New Guinea could pose a hurdle to Exxon’s plans. Already, the company has been forced to defend its contract in Guyana, a small South American country that signed a deal two years ago to develop the world’s biggest new deep-water find in a decade. The IMF described that agreement as “favourable” for Exxon, compared with global norms. The company has said there’s no need to renegotiate because the contract already included several concessions to the government.

The Papua New Guinea government is not seeking to revise the old contract. But the tenor of talks over the expansion will be influenced by the public perception that the massive project simply did not deliver the benefits that were promised.

An April 2009 version of an economic impact study by ACIL Tasman (now ACIL Allen Consulting) for Exxon said the project “has the potential to transform the economy of Papua New Guinea, boosting GDP and export earnings, providing a major increase in government revenue, royalty payments to landowners, creating employment opportunities during construction and operation, and providing a catalyst to further gas-based industry development.”

And before production began, the government estimated PNG LNG would boost its revenue by 2 billion kina (US$613 million) a year through 2021, the World Bank said in a December report.

Instead, the project’s partners paid only about 495 million kina in taxes, royalties, dividends and other payments in 2016, data from the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative show. A “complex web of exemptions and allowances” effectively mean that little revenue from the project goes to the government and landowners, the World Bank said.

“It’s an extraordinarily low level,” said Paul Barker, executive director at the Papua New Guinea Institute of National Affairs. “If you are not getting much in the way of revenue, there is something a bit screwed up.”

A research and advocacy group, Jubilee Australia Debt & Development Research Centre, had an even harsher take, noting in a detailed report last month that by “almost every measure of economic welfare,” Papua New Guinea “would have been better off without the PNG LNG project.”

Of the total paid to the government in 2016 by PNG LNG partners, Exxon’s share was about 216 million kina, more than half of which was income tax, according to EITI data. By comparison, the company’s revenue from the project was more than ten times that, at about 2.56 billion kina, according to Bloomberg estimates using production figures and annual averages for crude prices and foreign exchange rates.

Papua New Guinea has a stake in the venture through its state oil company, Kumul Petroleum Holdings Ltd. It’s portion of the revenue was 1.28 billion kina in 2016, according to Bloomberg calculations. It contributed about 100 million kina to the treasury and gave the government an advance of 200 million kina, according to an EITI report.

“Even Exxon staff, outside corporate earshot, sort of admit they got a good deal off of the government of PNG,” said Barker. “Obviously they come in, they know the game, they have a team of lawyers and accountants when it comes to negotiations.”

Exxon says it is honouring all contractually required payments and that the project delivers more than just government revenue through development levies, taxes, royalties and equity payments. PNG LNG has contributed about 14 billion kina to local businesses and the government, and employs 2600 workers and contractors, about 82% of whom are locals, Exxon said by email.

“ExxonMobil has been instrumental in driving economic growth in PNG by producing significant, lasting benefits,” the company said, adding it has “a strong commitment to social progress.”

Part two of this article can be read here.

Read the article online at: https://www.lngindustry.com/liquefaction/24052018/pacific-island-nation-battles-oil-giant-for-lng-profits/

 

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