By Toyin Akinosho
TOTAL’s announcement of a half-a-billion-dollar purchase of Tullow’s entire equity in a Ugandan oilfield development, last April, sounded like a loud, symbolic statement of optimism.
In a dry white season, during which over four billion people were in lockdowns across the globe, the statement seemed to assert: “Uganda, we got you”.
At the heart of the transaction is the 230,000BOPD (Barrels of Oil Per Day) Lake Albert upstream and midstream project.
Tullow will receive $575Million, with an initial payment of $500Million for its 33.3334% stake in each of the Lake Albert project licenses EA1, EA1A, EA2 and EA3A and the proposed East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) System. It will pick up the remaining $75Million cheque when the partners take the Final Investment Decision to launch the project. In addition, the Irish independent will receive conditional payments linked to production and oil price, which will be triggered when Brent prices are above $62/bbl.
Tullow got to reduce its debt and command an immediate surge in its share price. TOTAL secured such a prize for less than $2 a barrel and for Uganda, finally, a clear line of sight to Final Investment Decision for a development that had been on the drawing board for over a decade.
As I see it, TOTAL has prevailed in Uganda in the eight years since it first entered the country’s E&P sector, via the acquisition of 33.3% of what was then Tullow’s Blocks 1, 2 and 3A for $1.45Billion. It had gradually stamped its authority, muscled out Tullow and raced past the sure footed, hard-tackling energy bureaucrats at the country’s Petroleum Authority and Minerals and Energy Ministry.
The French major is the decisive winner.
Tullow, which helped to nurture East Africa’s potential as a prolific oil producing region, and proudly displayed a badge describing itself as “Africa’s leading Independent”, now had to pack its bags.
I started having the nagging suspicion that TOTAL had taken charge in late 2015, when I witnessed, first hand, a very public argument between two ranking Ugandan and Kenyan civil servants regarding which was the optimal route to lay the EACOP, the pipeline that will ferry the crude oil produced in landlocked Uganda to the Indian Ocean for export.
“The route through Kenya is the one we have always known,” Hudson K. Andambi, (then) senior principal superintendent geologist at the Kenyan Ministry of Energy and Petroleum, said at the Africa Oil Week in Cape Town.
“We are still evaluating the routes and the least cost route is what we will consider”, declared Fred Kabagambe-Kaliisa, (then) Permanent Secretary at the Uganda’s Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development, at the same conference, minutes after the Kenyan had spoken.
It was the second public hint that the Ugandans might jettison the long- anticipated, widely expected pipeline route from Hoima, in Uganda’s oil rich province, to the Kenyan coastal town of Lamu.
I walked up to Mr. Kabagambe-Kaliisa after his presentation and asked him, pointedly, if TOTAL was behind the change. “We will take on board any concerns by our partners,” he responded, carefully weighing his words.
With crude oil found in commercial quantities in the Kenyan hinterland, over a thousand kilometres from the coast, operator Tullow had looked forward to an evacuation pipeline, originating from Uganda, that would link up with one that collects Kenyan crude, with both crudes heading for a Kenyan coastal port. The agreement signed by Presidents Uhuru Kenyatta and Yoweri Museveni in August 2015, three months before that public contestation between the Kenyan and Ugandan officials, was anchored on a 1,500 kilometre pipeline from Hoima through Lokichar in Kenya’s border region, and required guarantees from the Kenyan government regarding security, route optimization and financing.
But two months after that Kenyatta-Museveni agreement and a month before the subject spat at Africa Oil Week, Ugandan and Tanzanian officials, as well as staff from TOTAL, signed a separate agreement, creating “a working framework for the potential development of a crude export pipeline from Hoima to Tanga Port of Tanzania,” the Ugandan Ministry of Energy said in a statement, which raised some concern in Nairobi.
And now we were at this conference, I knew that Tullow should be worried, very worried.
The decision to pump the Ugandan crude through a separate pipeline from that with which it planned to pump the Kenyan crude to market, meant that Tullow would be investing in two expensive pipeline projects, each costing no less than $3.5Billion. This, at a time of plunging crude oil price, should unnerve the company, a midsized independent struggling with losses.
It might not be surprising to some, then, that in January 2017, Tullow announced that, for a sum of $900Million, it had agreed to sell, to TOTAL, two thirds of its entire stake in each of the Lake Albert project licenses EA1, EA1A, EA2 and EA3A and the proposed East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) System. It came to 21.5% of the project’s entire stake. CNOOC invoked its right- of-first -refusal and asked for half of the 21.5%. But Kampala, never in a hurry to close any deal, dragged the timing of grant of the official consent for the sale, which itself impacted the Final Investment Decision.
The sticky point was the Tax that the government would receive from the sale and purchase.
Tullow’s inability to consummate the sale signaled to its shareholders that it wasn’t creating value. Share prices kept falling. Tullow was hemorrhaging worth.
With government still playing hard ball, two and half years after the intent for the 21.5% sale was announced, TOTAL pulled rank and announced the suspension of all activities, including tenders, on the EACOP. The Chinese, not known to express anger in public, decided that this was time to talk. “It is now very difficult to negotiate with government”, Gao Guangcai, CNOOC’s Vice Project Manager, told a conference in Kampala. The implication of TOTAL’s action was that the project could not continue.
The authorities got the message and the parties went back to the table.
By April ending 2020, the global economy had seized up; the Ugandan authorities had come around and Tullow was going to make a distress sale: accept $425Million less for a much larger stake than it had negotiated it would take three years and three months earlier. TOTAL, the European supermajor with piles of cash, is the winner that takes all.