By Drew Hinshaw and Alexis Flynn
ACCRA, Ghana--Executives from Nigeria's local oil companies say a five-year-long debate on how to overhaul nation's oil industry has been, for them, a windfall--affording them time and space to snap up some of the most lucrative oil blocks in Africa while heavyweight producers hold back.
Nigeria's Petroleum Industry Bill--a proposed overhaul of everything from tax rates to environmental laws to the structure of Nigeria's state-owned oil company--has been mired in legislative gridlock since Africa's most oil-rich nation first proposed the bill in 2007. Analysts say as much as $40 billion in investments from international oil companies is on pause until it passes.
Last month, as Nigeria's petroleum ministry presented another draft of the bill, Nigeria-listed Shoreline Natural Resources Ltd. purchased an $850 million, 45% share of the country's most prolific oil block. The block contains 1.4 billion barrels worth of proven reserves--more than the entire nation of Ghana or Equatorial Guinea. Automatically, it makes Shoreline one of Africa's top producers, and brings clout to U.K. explorer Heritage Oil PLC (HTGLY, HOIL.LN), which holds 45% of the company.
The previous owner, Royal Dutch Shell PLC (RDSA, RDSB, RDSA.LN, RDSB.LN), sold the block to fund expansions--but not in Nigeria, where the Anglo-Dutch oil heavyweight has made limited investments ahead of the new petroleum law. Bidders were almost exclusively smaller firms, most local.
While Shell has publicly affirmed its commitment to investing across Nigeria's oil sector--including spending up to $4 billion modernizing its onshore facilities--Chief Executive Peter Voser began his tenure at the helm of Shell by stating the country was no longer key to the company's "growth aspirations" and many analysts and observers believe the company wants to reduce its reliance on the more politically risky parts of its portfolio.
"The center of gravity is shifting," said Shoreline Chief Executive Kola Karim. "A lot of local independent companies who've never had the opportunity to go into a market like Nigeria are finding local partners. The international oil companies are shrinking."
He added that's partly because international firms are uncertain of how heavily Nigeria's new petroleum bill will tax foreign producers. Local companies largely believe the new law will improve tax terms for them.
But he said it's also because Africa's independent, smaller firms are enjoying easier access to capital. A wave of bank consolidation in Nigeria has boosted large-scale lending, while international banks have also pivoted lending towards the continent.
"What the global [international oil companies] have always held onto is capital--the ability to raise capital faster than anybody else," Mr. Karim said. "But today...it's been shown that a company like Shoreline can go out there and raise $850 million."
"Just as recently as eight years ago, access to even as little as $20 million from Nigeria banks was not there," said Austin Avuru, managing director of Nigerian oil company Seplat Petroleum Development Company Ltd. "But now you can get almost as much money as you need."
Companies like Seplat are expanding as some western oil majors scale back.
American oil producer ConocoPhilips (COP) is looking to sell its entire Nigerian operation, Reuters reported in May, citing people familiar to the deal who estimated the possible sale at $2.5 billion.
For the local companies poised to bid on those oil blocks, Nigeria offers an unrivaled--and risky--opportunity. International companies have long expressed a desire to unload their onshore blocks to finance new offshore wells. Out on Nigeria's seas, majors believe they can tap the country's supply of light, sweet crude without battling local hiring laws, oil theft, or the militants who, for 10 years, kidnapped oil workers and bombed buildings to extort profits.
That fight has quieted, but the ever-present memory of conflict has driven down the price of Nigerian blocks to as much as 25% below the cost of an equivalent block in Angola, Mr. Karim said. But, he added: "Those concerns are going to be mitigated because locals are going to be seen as the front party.
"I know the village heads, I know the chiefs," he said. "Can you imagine the CEO of Shell going to eat goat with the village head?"
-Write to Drew Hinshaw at firstname.lastname@example.org
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
July 11, 2012 13:31 ET (17:31 GMT)
Copyright (c) 2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.