Gulf LNG Project remains an enigma

WITH days or weeks to go before InterOil announces its joint venture partner for the Gulf LNG project, the company remains an enigma. By Wantok*

When the project was first envisioned the company spoke of a plant that would produce some 8 million tonnes of LNG annually from a site near its Port Moresby oil refinery.

In the early days there were doubts about the validity of the resource. Wells were drilled at Elk and InterOil exuded a great deal of confidence.

Confidence grew after Antelope-1 was drilled and flow tested in March 2009.

In December of that year an LNG project agreement was signed with the PNG government.

At the time, InterOil signalled its plan to build a LNG facility with multiple trains at a cost of $US5-7 billion.

It said the agreement with the government provided for expansion of the plant to 10.6MMtpa of LNG, with first production at the end of 2014 or early 2015.

Further, it said it was pursuing a condensate stripping facility by late 2011 or early 2012 to "provide an attractive revenue stream prior to the commissioning of the LNG plant".

As we now know none of that was ever to be. Ironically, over time, as more and more gas was proved up, the size of the proposed LNG plant has been shrinking.

Towards the end of 2008 the company had resources said to total 3.4 trillion cubic feet of gas. This had risen to 8.2Tcf by the beginning of 2010.

The most recent estimate took gas resources to 10.3Tcf, or just a shade less than the amount (10.5Tcf) the PNG government has allotted to the PNG LNG Project's 6.9MMtpa plant that will be completed next year.

After the initial euphoria about a world-scale facility alongside InterOil's Napa Napa refinery, where there was a sufficient draught (depth of water) for LNG-sized supertankers, there have been dramatic twists and turns in the Gulf LNG story.

The first of InterOil's major agreements was signed in April 2010 with Japan's Mitsui. This envisaged a 9000 barrels per day condensate stripping operation based on processing of 400 million cubic feet per day that would be reinjected into the field for future use.

Just five months later, InterOil signed a binding heads of agreement with Australian-listed Energy World Corporation (EWC) for a 2 million tonnes a year land-based modular LNG plant in Gulf Province , the first confirmation that gas was not going to be piped all the way to Port Moresby.

InterOil said it hoped the EWC plant could be operational by the end of 2013 so it could coincide with the condensate stripping joint venture with Mitsui to "accelerate the intended monetisation of Elk and Antelope".

By early 2011 there was a further change, with the company announcing plans to build a 2MMtpa facility and to then undertake a 1MMtpa expansion to raise production capacity to 3MMtpa.

Despite the time that had passed, it said it was still targeting for project completion by the end of 2014.

Korea's Samsung Heavy Industry and Norway's FLEX LNG Ltd then entered the picture in April 2011 with plans for an additional 2MMtpa floating LNG facility.

In between the time, the LNG agreement was signed with the PNG government in December 2009 and less than two years later the project scope had shrunk from the original 10.6MMtpa output to around half that amount.

In July 2011, in the midst of some controversy, InterOil gave an assurance it was intending to have a start up capacity of 5MMtpa in 2014, with potential expansion to 10.6MMtpa.

By September that year it announced the hunt was on for an "internationally recognised operating and equity partner", an ongoing requirement of the PNG government. Morgan Stanley, Macquarie Capital and UBSA Gas led this search.

However, a project update in April last year said the project agreement with the PNG government had stipulated that a final investment decision should be concluded by June this year for a 7.6MMtpa plant.

Readers of this column would be just as perplexed as Wantok about the variations to the unfolding Gulf LNG story, but there is more to come.

In November last year, InterOil announced that the PNG Cabinet had approved plans for Gulf LNG with an initial output of a minimum of 3.8MMtpa.

And as part of that agreement the government had also agreed to acquire an additional 27.5% stake in Elk-Antelope to take its total interest to 50%.

"InterOil understands that the state intends to take its entitlement to gas from the project in kind, to be used in part in domestic power generation and natural gas related industries, thereby providing a boost to PNG's growth and prosperity," the company announced.

To date there has been no indication on what terms the government will purchase the additional 27.5% stake. If this gas is to be used purely for domestic purposes, such as power generation, it seems unlikely this equity could be priced on a LNG export parity basis.

It seems some mysteries may only be resolved when, or if, a new "operating and equity partner" comes on board.

Wantok's stories are opinion pieces.


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