Angola battles to revive oil exploration as output declines

LUANDA (Reuters) - On Saturday, nearly two decades after securing the initial rights, Total’s CEO Patrick Pouyanné was in Luanda to snip the ribbon on a $16 billion oil project. It’s not clear when he, or his peers, will be cracking open the bubbly in Angola again.

Without another mega-project like Total’s Kaombo on the horizon and fields getting old, Africa’s second-largest crude producer is facing a steep decline unless it can revive exploration in what was once one of the world’s most exciting offshore prospects.

Sonangol, the state oil company, is negotiating contracts for new blocks with oil majors and Angola plans to hold an auction next year, the first tender for exploration rights since 2011.

It’s a race against time for a country where oil accounts for 95 percent of exports and around 70 percent of government revenues. Luck will also play a part, as it always does in exploration where finding oil can never be guaranteed.

But without new projects, output could fall to 1 million barrels per day by 2023, according to the oil ministry. That is down from 1.5 million today and nearly half of what Angola was producing a decade ago. The country risks having its OPEC quota cut and is struggling to ensure the long-term feed for its $10 billion liquid natural gas plant.

President João Lourenço won an August 2017 election promising an “economic miracle” in Angola, which despite its oil wealth struggles to provide basic services to a mostly impoverished population that is growing at 3 percent a year. But falling oil production means a third consecutive contraction is expected in 2018, even while annual inflation runs at 18 percent.

To turn things around, Angola has asked international oil companies to the table, offering better fiscal terms and more collaboration.

With the time from exploration to first oil on new areas anything from five to 10 years, Angola is also offering tax breaks to encourage companies to link existing marginal discoveries to operating production platforms.

There are signs the measures are working, though some oil experts wonder at what cost for the southwest African country.

“The level of exploration activity in Angola is beginning to change,” Sonangol’s Chairman, Carlos Saturnino, said at Saturday’s inauguration.

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