The underbelly department: opinion

COMMERCIALISATION of Papua New Guinea’s remote gas fields could transform the country, so why is PNG’s Department of Petroleum and Energy so utterly unreachable and how does it operate anyway?
The underbelly department: opinion The underbelly department: opinion The underbelly department: opinion The underbelly department: opinion The underbelly department: opinion

The ABC's PNG correspondent Liam Fox revealed the difficulties reporters had getting any comment from the department on his twitter account on Monday.

"Just rang every one of the 40 or so numbers listed for the PNG Petroleum Department ... all either out of service or permanently engaged," Fox tweeted.

Don't bother visiting the department's website either - as of yesterday it wasn't working and on previous attempts it was clear it had not been updated for years.

But what of the political changes in PNG?

Does the O'Neill-Namah coalition government aim to be more accountable than the Somare regime?

Well, for the petroleum portfolio it seems unlikely as Petroleum and Energy Minister William Duma served in this role under the Somare government for years.

If anything, the DPE seems more untouchable.

As acting prime minster, Sam Abal surely had some reason to dump Duma as the petroleum minister last year - a move which helped to provide enough opposition numbers to topple the Somare government.

Since the O'Neill-Namah coalition government first took office we had the emergence of a strategic alliance between state-owned Petromin and oil major Royal Dutch Shell.

Shell won't reveal what the alliance is about for confidentiality reasons.

Petromin actually has some media relations contacts but they seem selective on what they respond to.

As far as getting comment from the DPE - good luck. does not even receive a response to direct emails to its staff requesting the latest map of PNG petroleum licences and as discussed earlier, it is a mystery as to which numbers to contact DPE personnel on anyway.

What about going through the prime minister's media office?

Yes, you can pass questions onto the DPE through that channel.

But after four or so months, the spokesperson still has not got back to me on who is the best person to contact in the DPE for media enquiries.

As for questions I asked (and which I heard were passed on to the DPE) relating to what the unknown company called Elevala Energy did to win a 10% stake of petroleum retention licence 21 in Western Province last year - they remain unanswered.

What is clear is that Elevala Energy did not want to pony up for any drilling expenses - its 10% stake of the licence was acquired by Horizon Oil for an unknown sum a few months later.

Yet this is only a recent chapter in the mystery that is the DPE.

The previous Somare government decided to manage its share of the ExxonMobil-led PNG LNG project completely outside of the department through a state-owned enterprise (that was not associated with Petromin either).

Consequently, Sir Michael's son Arthur oversaw the PNG LNG involvement as public enterprises minister.

There are some views that the PNG LNG project would not have happened under the management of the DPE and even the department's key obligation to organise landowner meetings was often left to the "last minute".

While the Department of Public Enterprises was "abolished" by the O'Neill-Namah government in November, the government's stake of the PNG LNG project is yet to fall exclusively under DPE management.

But the DPE could be more involved with major petroleum projects in the future.

At a petroleum seminar in December, Duma discussed the ambition to have a single national oil and gas company in the form of Petromin.

Duma said he would nominate Petromin as the state nominee for nine PRLs.

Last week, Shell revealed its joint technical study agreement with Petromin would be completed this year - and Shell previously said it was studying all major hydrocarbon basins in PNG.

While Shell has deep pockets and proven technical expertise, some industry observers may end up wondering if there are other reasons the oil major got the red carpet treatment - but don't expect any easy answers on that front.

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