PNG LNG: What could Papua New Guinea’s new pipeline project bring?

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Euromoney, April 2009

October is going to be a big month for Papua New Guinea. It doesn’t sound much on paper: it’s the deadline for the final investment decision on a liquefied natural gas and pipeline project. But it’s a project that will change the country dramatically – economically and socially. In fact, it’s hard to think of another example anywhere in the world where so much, good and bad, might depend on a single investment decision.

The project in question is known as PNG LNG, and it is an attempt to commercialise undeveloped petroleum and gas resources in the highlands and western provinces of Papua New Guinea. The gas has to go through a 470 kilometre pipeline across rugged terrain to a liquefied natural gas facility 20 kilometres outside Port Moresby, the capital, for liquefaction; once there, about 6.3 million tonnes of LNG product a year will be loaded into tankers to be shipped to offshore gas markets worldwide. ExxonMobil, with its Esso Highlands subsidiary as operator, is the driver of the project with a 41.5% interest; also in there are Australia’s Oil Search (34%) and Santos (17.7%) and Japan’s Nippon Oil (5.4%) among others, with the PNG state expected to join as an equity participant at a later date.

The numbers attached to this project are extraordinary in any context, but particularly so in an economically small country where 85% of the population exists on subsistence agriculture. The development costs are put at between $11 billion and $14 billion, figures confirmed to Euromoney by the Investment Promotion Agency (IPA); once completed in 2013 or early 2014, it is expected to double Papua New Guinea’s approximately $12 billion GDP.

The consortium signed a gas agreement with the Papua New Guinea government in May and has since moved to what is known as the front end engineering and development (FEED) part of the project – a sufficiently big step that many seem to think the project’s development is now a foregone conclusion. “They are spending $400 million on FEED, so it would be silly to spend that kind of money and not have the project go ahead,” says Ivan Pomaleu, who heads the IPA. One foreign banker says he senses “100% certainty among local people that it’s going to happen.” But in truth it won’t be until October that the deal is confirmed. “That’s basically the point where we say yes, no or defer,” says Pomaleu. “That’s the moment when we can say: yep, we have a project; no, we don’t have a project; or we will have a project but not immediately. It’s a big project and we want to be sure.”

So big that those involved tend to use great understatement in describing it. “The scale [financially] will depend on commodity prices but if it doubles our current GDP, that’s quite big,” says Simon Tosali, secretary for the department of treasury. “It will be the biggest project this country has ever undertaken in its 34 years of independence. So it’s going to be quite big.”

The knock-on effects will be varied, and not entirely to the good. An increase in wealth on this scale obviously has enormous potential for budget revenues and the ability to fund badly needed spending on schools, hospitals and roads, among other things. There’s also the demonstration effect to consider: if a project like this is shown to be not only possible but practical then a host of other possibilities come to the surface in this remarkably resource-rich country. But there are real questions about Papua New Guinea’s ability to cope with this sudden influx of money and development. “There is already a strain on all infrastructure: telecoms, security, power, skilled labour,” says one banker. “There are lots of business opportunities but the capability of the local market to provide that support is already sorely tested.” Foreign banks – there are three of note, the Australians Westpac and ANZ and the Malaysian Maybank (Malaysia is the most active foreign nation in Papua New Guinea, particularly in areas like forestry and palm oil) – should stand to do remarkably well out of the development of Papua New Guinea, using their own global or regional networks to help serve the multinational companies who are coming in. But it’s the on the ground presence, from the 7500 construction workers required for PNG LNG, to the hotels and schools they will need and the roads they will drive on and the power for their businesses, to the local accountancy and legal professions, that are really going to be under stress.

Chris Wright
Chris Wright
Chris is a journalist specialising in business and financial journalism across Asia, Australia and the Middle East. He is Asia editor for Euromoney magazine and has written for publications including the Financial Times, Institutional Investor, Forbes, Asiamoney, the Australian Financial Review, Discovery Channel Magazine, Qantas: The Australian Way and BRW. He is the author of No More Worlds to Conquer, published by HarperCollins.

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