Monday, August 28, 2006

Access vs. Responsibility

Chad was going to be a model for developing countries. It would show the way for other nations wishing to tap their mineral wealth, without bringing on the dreaded "resource curse" of corruption and anemic economic development. The mechanism chosen for this was a World Bank administered escrow fund, into which all oil profits would be paid, with funds administered by the Bank for agreed development priorities. Now Chad has announced the expulsion of two of the three international oil companies that produce the country's oil--and that invested their money, along with the World Bank, to build all the necessary production and pipeline infrastructure. The stated reason is a tax dispute, but reading between the lines, this is just an excuse to let the Chadian government bypass the escrow mechanism, which had already been modified to give them a larger direct take. The situation provides a prime example of the problems that extractive industries face in trying to gain access to resources, while avoiding criticism that they are indifferent to the needs of local populations.

Access to resources remains the principal challenge facing international oil and gas companies in this decade. Production in the countries that have provided them the greatest degree of ownership and control has either peaked or is near a peak, while most of the countries with the largest remaining reserves, particularly in the Middle East, limit access to their own national oil companies (NOCs). That leaves the oil majors with a few large opportunities in Russia and the Caspian--hardly a cake-walk to negotiate--plus a middle ground of non-OPEC developing countries such as Angola, Burma, Chad, Sao Tome, Sudan, and the like.

One of the interesting features of the situation in Chad is that it's not just Western companies that are under pressure. Besides Chevron, the other firm being kicked out is the Malaysian NOC, Petronas, which has been busily diversifying outside its home country. Petronas represents precisely the kind of company that is typically invited in, when the US and EU players lose their concessions or run into problems with "untouchable" regimes, such as Burma's. Coming on the heels of Bolivia's nationalization of its hydrocarbon sector, and the "renegotiation" of Venezuelan contracts, it certainly looks like all the international players--majors and NOCs alike--are in for a rough period.

That's not just bad news for them and their shareholders. As I've suggested on many occasions, I believe that the timing of Peak Oil will have more to do with geopolitics than geology. If the companies with the best technology and the biggest investment budgets can't get access to the best reserves, global oil production will suffer and prices will continue to rise for the foreseeable future. At the same time, social responsibility will become meaningless, if the companies that play by these rules lose out to those willing to do anything it takes to get a concession.

No comments: