High oil prices prompt a scramble for Africa

Dakar, Jan 27 | Updated: Jan 28 2008, 05:05am hrs
High oil prices and the onslaught of resource nationalism from Russia to South America have sent Western majors delving ever deeper into the waters of the Gulf of Guinea, triggering a new scramble for Africa.

Unlike more established oil-producing regions, the Gulf of Guinea offers easy access and attractive terms for Western oil companies, like Royal Dutch Shell and Exxon Mobil Corp, desperate to replenish their flagging reserves.

A number of West African countries, from established producers Nigeria and Angola to newcomers like Liberia, will tender acreage this year. But, with Asian giants China and India jockeying for resources, a battle is under way.

Africa, and particularly the Gulf of Guinea, is one of the hottest destinations in the world today for the oil industry, said industry expert John Ghazvinian. Its the final frontier in terms of conventional sources of oil.

According to consultants PFC Energy, only 7% of the worlds oil and gas reserves are in countries that allow majors free rein. Two-thirds are in the hands of powerful state companies such as Saudi Aramco and Venezuelas PDVSA.

West Africa holds much less than a tenth of the worlds proven oil reserves, compared to two-thirds in the Middle East, but for foreign companies, it is an oasis of opportunities.

Royal Dutch Shell remains the leading producer in Nigeria, despite a simmering uprising in the Niger Delta. In Equatorial Guinea, it is Exxon Mobil; in Gabon, it is Frances Total and in Angola, Chevron.

As companies scour the waters of the Gulf for new finds, utilisation of drilling rigs in the area is running at 98% of capacity versus around 75% in the Gulf of Mexico and South America, according to ODS-Petrodata Group.

Discovery rates are high. Since 2000, a third of the worlds oil finds have been in Africa, most in the Gulf of Guinea. Ghana struck oil last year and aims to start production by 2009, while tiny Sao Tome hopes to join the club of West African producers.

But there are drawbacks.

Except for Nigeria, most West African oil is offshore and expensive to extract. With fears of a US recession, which has hit oil prices and prompted the International Energy Agency to cut its 2008 demand forecast, analysts are raising questions.

What if there is a US recession and oil prices collapse asked Sebastian Spio-Garbrah, West Africa analyst at Eurasia Group. Would state companies want more control Would majors still be willing to invest in costly offshore production

Even if prices tumble, interest in West Africa is likely to be sustained by its strategic location between the US and Asian markets, and the low sulphur content of its oil which makes it less corrosive to refine and more environment-friendly.

But with talk of peak oil a plateau in world production gaining currency among even seasoned oil executives, any prolonged decline in petroleum prices seems unlikely.

Ghazvinian, author of Untapped: The Scramble for Africas Oil, predicts some $50 billion will be invested over three years, with US companies accounting for a third of that.

West Africa already provides 17% of US oil imports. With Washington keen to ease its reliance on the volatile Middle East, the National Intelligence Council, a CIA think-tank, forecasts this will rise to 25% by 2015.

Washington has already raised its military profile in the Gulf, launching a permanent naval presence and seeking a site for its new African command. But money may talk more than military might.

Thirsty for oil to feed their booming economies, China and India are pouring billions of dollars into acreage in Nigeria, Angola and Equatorial Guinea, and they are reaping the benefits.

Angola has become the largest supplier of oil to China, shipping a record 900,000 barrels a day in December. Chinas CNOOC expects first oil this year from Nigerias giant deepwater Akpo field, after it paid $2 billion for a stake in 2006.

Most production is still in the hands of the majors, said Nicholas Shaxson, author of Poisoned Wells: The Dirty Politics of African Oil.

Chinese and Indian companies dont have the expertise to compete with Shell and Exxon Mobil, but theyre learning fast.