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Nigeria's oil bill faces major obstacles

  |   April 29, 2011 at 11:31 AM
ABUJA, Nigeria, April 29 (UPI) -- Nigeria's newly elected president faces a plethora of problems plaguing Africa's most populous nation but the toughest is likely to be enacting sweeping reforms of the troubled oil industry, the nation's economic lifeline.

The Petroleum Industry Bill remains blocked in the Nigerian National Assembly, where it was first presented in January 2009.

This blueprint to overhaul the energy industry in sub-Saharan Africa's second largest economy and boost state revenues is bitterly opposed by the international companies, which produce up to 98 percent of the country's oil, and entrenched Nigerian interests that have gotten fat on poorly monitored oil revenues for decades.

President Goodluck Jonathan, elected in an April 16 vote, has vowed the contentious PIB will be approved by the end of the current administration May 29.

But, with the increasingly complex bill shelved by the Senate in March despite intense lobbying by the executive, that seems a remote prospect.

The uncertainty surrounding the PIB, says Anthony Goldman, chief executive of London's PM Consulting, "has already forced the government to abandon a lucrative oil licensing round."

"Investment in new projects in the sector more generally has also been constrained; ambitious plans for an $80 billion integrated gas gathering and processing system remain exactly that: ambitious plans."

All told, industry officials say up to $120 billion in oil and gas industry investment, largely by Royal Dutch Shell, Total of France and Chevron of the United States, has been stalled because of the PIB impasse.

The Lagos Independent newspaper says if the projects were implemented, they "have the capacity to ramp up Nigeria's crude oil production capacity to more than 4 million barrels per day and liquefied natural gas to about 70 million metric standard cubic feet per year."

The country's oil output under the Nigerian National Petroleum Co., the state oil company, is around 2.3 million bpd of light crude. It's in demand since Libya's exports of that grade of oil have been cut off.

Nigeria has proven oil reserves of 3.72 billion barrels, plus undeveloped gas reserves of 173.6 trillion cubic feet.

The NNPC, according to the U.S. strategic consultancy Stratfor, "is widely regarded as a corrupt and ineffective organization that enables a broad patronage network" that's closely linked to the country's volatile politics "with decisive power vested in the president.

"Competition for ever-greater allocations of oil revenue has created an artificial reliance on the central government, with the NNPC serving as the chief enabler.

"Hence, any attempt to restructure the NNPC will affect the country to its core, impacting entrenched political power bases as well as average Nigerians."

The PIB, considered the most ambitious attempt yet to reform Nigeria's oil industry, is intended to create a comprehensive legal framework for the oil and gas industry. Through it, the government seeks to attain several important objectives, primarily increasing state revenues by increasing taxes on international companies, freeing the NNPC from dependence on federal funding, deregulating the downstream sector and developing gas production.

"At the core of the rot in the oil industry is the NNPC, the state oil company, which has become a byword for corruption and inertia," Goldman observed in January analysis in the Financial Times.

"Oil production has been stagnant … for a decade; vast reserves of natural gas are for the most part either wasted or unexploited."

Goldman said Nigeria's "toxic political culture dominated by vested interests" was snarling the PIB.

But he said there were grounds for hope that parliament will approve a compromise version of the bill in the months ahead, and put Nigeria's all-important energy industry back on its feet and into a new era.

Stratfor said the PIB could garner fresh impetus in the new Parliament.

"Despite widespread opposition, Abuja is hoping that a current combination of high oil prices and increased international competition will allow the PIB to be passed and enacted during the upcoming parliamentary session."

This would have geopolitical implications. The United States is increasing its imports of African oil as it seeks to break its dependence on the volatile Middle East.

Nigeria is the United States' fourth largest supplier of oil, nearly 1 million bpd, after Canada, Saudi Arabia and Mexico. West Africa is expected to produce one-fifth of U.S. oil imports by 2015.

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