Emerging fronts

RESOURCE industry magnate Clive Palmer says he turned down a joint venture offer from ExxonMobil over his extensive offshore petroleum prospecting licences in Papua New Guinea. PNG Report covers a selection of unfolding petroleum plays.
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Published in the November 2012 PNG Report magazine

Despite his previous Chinese business dealings and the fact that his company holding the three PPLs is called Chinampa Exploration, Palmer wholly owns these licences through his group of companies and doesn't have any immediate plans to sell any stakes.

The three licences, which were given different PPL numbers after they were last renewed, collectively form a roughly diamond-shaped expanse which extends from past the long-stranded Pandora gas field to the west to within 20km of Port Moresby's coast to the east.

Early this year, Palmer revealed to the Australian press that PNG LNG project operator ExxonMobil had proposed farm-out arrangements for Chinampa with the last talks held in late 2011.

The entrepreneur further said this offshore acreage could turn into a project bigger than the North West Shelf in Western Australia.

Palmer hasn't changed his bullish view of this acreage, which he picked up during the more frightening periods of the global financial crisis, and estimates he has spent about $A30 million on the licences so far which yielded encouraging 2D seismic results.

"We will spend another $30 million in the next six months - doing 3D seismic," Palmer told PNG Report.

One significance of 3D seismic to PNG is that it is hardly ever used in the country - in fact, capturing even 2D seismic is impossible in some gas-rich areas of the Southern Highlands.

Oil Search launched the first-ever 3D seismic program in PNG last year - and it was also shot offshore in the Gulf of Papua to the west of Palmer's licences. The high level of detail received helped de-risk several plays, with Oil Search consequently planning at least two offshore wells with the first to spud early next year.

In an update on the talks held with Exxon, Palmer revealed that he didn't need the supermajor.

"Exxon approached us to do a joint venture, which we never went ahead with," Palmer said.

"We decided to do the 3D seismic ourselves."

Palmer didn't make any comment on Oil Search's offshore endeavours further west of his licences, other than saying he thinks his tenements are the best ones in PNG.

"I think it's the best opportunity in the world at the moment in PNG," Palmer said.

This comment is striking in the context of Palmer's considerable coal and iron ore assets in Australia.

An owner of the Yabulu nickel refinery and a luxury resort in Queensland, Palmer is also striving to remake the famous Titanic ocean liner with the architectural and engineering plans for the Titanic II will be unveiled at a black-tie dinner in New York in early December.

While Palmer will eagerly await the results of his 3D seismic, Oil Search's 3D seismic in the Gulf of Papua helped bring in French supermajor Total SA into its Gulf area licences in a landmark deal announced this month.

Comprising three tenements in Gulf province and two offshore PPLs in the Gulf of Papua, Total will acquire a 40% stake in the offshore licences, while Oil Search will also hold a 40% stake post-transaction.

At the time of publication, the signed sale and purchase agreements still required PNG government approval, with the total sum of the proposed transactions unrevealed.

However, the supermajor did comment on its motivations for its first entry into PNG.

"We are convinced that our partnership with Oil Search, a well-established oil and gas player in this country, is a very positive foundation for our future success in this venture," Total exploration and production senior vice-president Jean-Marie Guillermou said.

"The farm-in reinforces our exploration portfolio in the foothills and carbonates plays and it is in line with our strategy to strengthen our presence in the Asia Pacific, particularly in the gas and LNG sectors."

In regards to the potential carbonate plays, the licences concerned are PPLs 338 and 339 in Gulf province, in which Oil Search and Total are proposed to have a 35% stake each after the sale is completed.

The other 30% stakeholder in these licences is Kina Petroleum.

In regards to PPL 338, Kina Petroleum managing director Richard Schroder revealed to PNG Report that there was a prospect called North Triceratops, which is believed to be an extension of the carbonates struck by InterOil's Triceratops-2 well about 9-15km away.

Outside of other seismic plans which are on the cards, Schroder expected that the first major news from the Gulf province licences it shares with Oil Search would concern a well on the Nipa prospect in PPL 338.

While the progress of Palmer's offshore exploration and Oil Search's efforts in the wider Gulf area represent at least two new emerging upstream fronts in PNG, state-owned Petromin PNG Holdings appears to be on an unprecedented strategy.

The state-owned enterprise has applied for a bag of offshore licences in northern PNG, including a contiguous block of six which include and surround Manus Island.

In conjunction with its existing APPLs and granted PPL 345 off the northern coast of New Ireland to the east, the entire stretch of Petromin's contiguous northern offshore APPL and PPL acreage is conservatively longer than 500km from west to east.

Petromin has not responded to questions over its plans for this little-known expanse and other industry players also seem to be in the dark on Petromin's motivations.

What makes this licence acquiring spree interesting is that Petromin has advanced this strategy, particularly by picking up the Manus Island surrounding acreage, after it struck a strategic alliance with oil major Shell last year.

The increasing upstream focus on offshore PNG is notable as many explorers often want to apply for licences as close as they can to better-known hydrocarbon regions, which includes the Highlands areas which underpin the PNG LNG project, the onshore Gulf province turf that InterOil helped put on the map and the high condensate fields of Western Province.

But the offshore opportunities also have their merits. Aside from observations that various onshore hydrocarbons have possible connections to ocean-based basins, there are opportunities to capture excellent 3D seismic over PNG's relatively shallow waters.

Then there is the "no landowners" factor which could favourably spring into the mind of any executive with even a cursory knowledge of PNG. The advancements in floating LNG technology offer further promise to even keep potential production offshore and safe from potential site disruptions.

While Oil Search and Palmer are yet to comment about floating LNG, last year Petromin helped form the PNG FLNG joint venture (34%), which it shares with FLNG specialist Hoegh LNG and a Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering subsidiary, who each own 33%.

Yet the main flaw with FLNG concepts at this stage is precisely that they are not yet proven. Although Petromin's strategic partner Shell could be the first to finally demonstrate this potential with its Prelude FLNG facility for Western Australia's Browse Basin.

Construction was officially underway in October with first cargoes from the at-least 3.6 million tonnes per annum facility expected in 2016.

UPDATE Petromin recently discussed its offshore petroleum strategy at the PNG Chamber of Mines and Petroleum conference in Sydney. The audio should be available at http://www.pnginvestment.com/.

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