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Shell plans £3bn sale in Nigeria

Times Online

The Sunday Times

December 20, 2009

Royal Dutch Shell, the oil giant, has launched a shake-up of its controversial operations in Nigeria by offering oilfields valued at up to $5 billion (£3.1 billion) for sale.

The auction comes as Nigeria prepares to impose harsher terms on foreign operators next month and hand greater control to domestic firms.

Shell is the biggest western oil firm in Nigeria, the world’s tenth largest producer, and has had operations there for 70 years.

It is understood that the company recently launched a formal sales process that is being overseen by Ann Pickard, head of Shell Nigeria.

“They have been talking about this for a while but it has now kicked off,” said a source close to the situation. “They are inviting proposals and circulating technical data on their fields.”

Shell’s decision to reduce its reliance on Nigeria, which was once its primary growth engine, signals a huge shift.

For decades it has been a mainstay of an industry that accounts for more than three-quarters of the Nigerian economy. It persisted despite rampant piracy and a long-running campaign of violence by militants against foreign workers.

The growing violence and a souring of relations with the government in recent years led the company to invest billions elsewhere to offset its dependence on the country.

With new projects in the Gulf of Mexico and Qatar near completion, it is understood that Peter Voser, Shell’s chief executive, is now keen to reduce its position in Nigeria.

Sinopec, one of China’s state-owned oil groups, has requested information. It is thought that indigenous companies such as Oando, Nigeria’s largest independent group, and London-listed Afren, could also pick up some fields.

Shell declined to comment but sources in talks with the company said the assets in question could be worth up to $5 billion. It is not selling its offshore blocks, which are less vulnerable and have more generous royalty terms.

Most of Shell’s fields are onshore and it is understood that the divestiture programme is focused primarily on those in the western part of the country. These include producing fields as well as undeveloped blocks and those now shut down because of the violence.

A further impetus has been provided by the end of long-term oilfield leases that were granted to Shell and other western rivals such as Exxon Mobil and Chevron. The leases, which have been in force for at least 20 years, were struck under the framework set out in the Petroleum Act of 1960. The Nigerian government is driving a hard bargain on renewal talks.

Adewale Tinubu, chief executive of Oando, said: “This has been a long time coming. The Petroleum Act was passed in 1960. It’s now almost 2010. It’s the biggest shake-up of the industry since Nigeria became independent.”

He added: “Shell will be the predominant seller. They have the widest footprint across the country and need to optimise the most.”

CNOOC, another Chinese state firm, recently offered $50 billion for a huge swathe of the country’s reserves. Some of these are still controlled by joint ventures between Nigeria’s national oil company and western partners.

Shell’s relationship with the Nigerians is fraught. It has filed dozens of lawsuits over pay disputes with the national oil company. Illegal tapping and sabotage of pipelines, meanwhile, has led to hundreds of thousands of barrels of crude being spilled into the environment.

Exxon and Chevron are believed to want to sell assets, while also bidding to renew rights to more desirable fields.

Shell’s decision is part of a company-wide shake-up. Since taking the helm in July, Voser has made 15,000 workers reapply for their jobs, re-entered Iraq and put a handful of European refineries up for sale.

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