The oil ministry’s decision to allow all companies to freely explore for oil and gas is a major step forward, designed to revive the flagging oil and gas sector where, over the years, private sector interest has been falling. The immediate beneficiary will be Cairn India which has been, for over a year, asking for permission to explore for more oil in its Rajasthan block—if all goes to plan and Cairn-ONGC find the oil their studies suggest is there in the block, the government stands to gain an additional $15 billion in net present value. That means $9.5 billion more for the central government, $4 billion for Rajasthan and $1.5 billion for ONGC as its share of the profits of the field it jointly operates with Cairn. Others, like RIL and even the state-owned ONGC, will also benefit in a big way since both have, in the past, been denied permission to explore once their initial exploration phase is over—under the production sharing contract (PSC), only the first 7 of the 25 year period can be used for exploration, the rest has to be used for production. The international practice, however, is to allow continuous exploration.
But there’s a catch here that can be quite serious and may stop companies from exploration. Under what’s been approved, companies cannot expense what they spend on the new exploration unless there is a new discovery—so if Cairn spends $1 billion on the new exploration and ends up finding nothing, it cannot deduct this from