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Kazakhstan aims at oil giants in new flare up

Astana: Kazakhstan is suing foreign oil majors developing its huge Kashagan oil field in the Caspian Sea, a tactic similar to those that secured the government large stakes in two of the three multinational energy projects on its territory.

Repeated delays at the 13-year-old project, targeted to produce as much oil as Opec member Angola from a reserve almost as big as Brazil’s, have infuriated the Kazakh government.

The consortium, led by Exxon, Royal Dutch Shell, Total and Eni as well as Kazakh state oil firm KazMunaiGas, may face Kazakhstan seizing a bigger stake in Kashagan or refusing to reimburse a big chunk of the $50 billion (Dh183.5 billion) spent on bringing it onstream. The latter option is written into the Kashagan contracts.

Production at Kashagan, the world’s biggest oil discovery in 35 years, began in September but was stopped just weeks later after gas was found to be leaking from its pipelines. Residual sour gas was then burnt in flares at Kashagan’s processing plants, polluting the environment, the Environment Protection Ministry said in a statement on Friday.

Checks showed that the volume of gas burnt in flares last September and October were 2.8 million cubic metres, exceeding legal limits, the ministry said, and a claim against the North Caspian Operating Company (NCOC) has been made by Atyrau Region authorities in western Kazakhstan where Kashagan is located. NCOC, contacted by Reuters, declined immediate comment.

Kazakhstan is Central Asia’s largest economy and the second-largest former-Soviet oil producer after Russia. It is home to slightly more than 3 per cent of the world’s recoverable oil reserves.

State oil firm KazMunaiGas took a shareholding in the Kashagan consortium in 2005 and later doubled its stake to 16.81 per cent, equal to those of the four foreign stakeholders. Japan’s Inpex has 7.56 per cent, and China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC) bought a 8.33 per cent in 2013 from ConocoPhillips.

KazMunaiGas also secured a 10 per cent stake the giant Karachaganak oil and gas condensate field in northwestern Kazakhstan in 2011. Other project participants are BG, Chevron and Russia’s Lukoil.

Before the gas leaks brought Kashagan’s output to a halt, the consortium had failed to achieve so-called “commercial output” at the field by October 1 as stipulated in its contract.

This means that NCOC members will not be reimbursed for costs between then and the date when they finally achieve commercial output, KazMunaiGas head Sauat Mynbayev said this week, reiterating a clause added to the production sharing agreement in 2008.

Kazakh Prime Minister Serik Akhmetov said last week he hoped that the field could start producing again in the first-half or early in the second-half of this year with output seen at 3 million tonnes of crude by the end of 2014.

NCOC said last month that as a precautionary measure to save time it had begun a tender process for the potential purchase of pipeline joints “for various scenarios”. Much of its infrastructure is built on artificial islands to avoid damage from pack ice in a shallow sea, which freezes five months a year in temperatures that drop below minus 30 degrees Celsius.