With 10 oil blocks still up for grabs, South Sudan is shopping for new investors to prospect for hydrocarbons as the world’s youngest nation looks to make up for time and revenue lost during five years of civil war that saw the country lose an estimated $4 billion.
Minister of Petroleum Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth told The EastAfrican on the sidelines of the Second Africa Oil and Power Conference held in in Juba from November 20-22 that South Sudan will not turn away investors.
“Big or small, or reputation, it doesn’t matter,” he said “We are ready to license any company. If you can deliver, I am with you, whether you are from Africa or elsewhere,” Gatkuoth said.
But even as Juba was preparing to host the conference, which attracted nearly 400 oil investors, experts and executives, it was apparent that Russian firms were ready to roll into town and get down to work.
Last month, a delegation from South Sudan led by Mr Gatkuoth and officials from the government-owned Nile Petroleum Corporation travelled to Russia where they signed a memorandum of understanding with Russian oil company Zarubezhneft to explore some of the blocks open for licensing.
The officials also signed two other MoUs with Russian giants oil producer Gazprom Neft, and Rosneft, a Moscow-based integrated energy company that is expected to partner with Juba to develop a geological map of the country's minerals, according to Nile Petroleum Corporation (Nilepet) managing director Dr Abel Chol Deng.
The Russians have neither confirmed nor denied the existence of these MoUs, but Dr Deng says that this is because of the geopolitical play between Moscow and Washington.
“We are in contact with them and they actually want to come in, based on the MoUs that we signed,” he told journalists in Juba on November 22.
But it is understood that the Central Energy Fund (CEF) of South Africa is also keen to make a foray into South Sudan where it will build a refinery to handle 10,000 barrels of oil per day at Pagak as well as invest an estimated $500 million in an oil pipeline that will link two oil producing blocks.
Before war broke out in December 2013, South Sudan's oil production had peaked at 350,000 barrels per day, but in the five years since, the country has lost significant revenue due to a halt in production.
Besides production shutting down, the economy was starved of new investments as issuance of new licences for other upstream activities like exploration and drilling – from which the government earned signature bonuses – also stopped. But after a peace deal signed in July this year between President Salvar Kiir and Dr Riek Machar, Mr Gatkuoth says the country’s priority is to increase production back to pre-war capacity of 350,000 bpd, as well as issue new exploration licences.
“We still have Blocks A1, A2, A3, A4, A5, A6. All these are still open. If you are interested, we can even sign now,” he told the second AOP conference in Juba.
The promise of higher oil production and more drilling activity has already whetted the appetite of many investors already in the country, including state-owned oil companies like Malaysian giant Petronas, China National Petroleum Corporation and India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Videsh.
The Juba conference also attracted companies from Turkey, Kenya, Ethiopia and South Africa.
“South Sudan is on a roll, there is no denying that. You can feel the change in the air and that is thanks to the peace agreement and the enabling investment climate that the government has implemented,” says Guillaume Doane, the chief executive officer of Africa Oil and Power.
He adds: “Even without new exploration, the country has the capacity to become the third largest oil producer in sub-Saharan Africa. With a solid peace deal in place, South Sudan is one of Africa’s most exciting and prospective resource plays.”
But risk assessment experts are not wholly convinced. “There are no flare-ups right now, but nothing much has changed. Political instability risk is fairly high, and that’s a risk for investors coming to put money here,” says Shawn Duthie of Africa Risk Consulting, adding that “Three and half billion proven barrels of oil means opportunity is high. But even with the peace agreement, South Sudan remains a big security risk.”
Even with only 30 per cent of its territory explored, South Sudan has proven 3.5 billion barrels of oil – the third largest oil reserves in Africa — but has only attracted mainly Asian players and African companies.
Although Petronas, CNPC and ONGC Videsh are the biggest players, these could soon rub shoulders with the Russians and South Africans reported to be keen on South Sudan oil.
Petronas, CNPC and ONGC lead the three oil production consortiums, Dar Petroleum Operating Company, Sudd Petroleum Operating Company and Greater Petroleum Operating Company, while Nigerian firm Oranto Petroleum was last year issued exploration licence for Block 3B.
Blocks 3 and 7 are operated by DPOC, the largest oil producing consortium and currently producing 130,000 barrels of oil per day (bpd).
But Mr Gatkuoth says the consortium should pump 270,000 bpd because the country’s priority is to increase production and the amount of oil flowing, as South Sudan chases its pre-war capacity of 350,000 bopd.
The other two producers GPOC (operating Blocks 1, 2 and 4) and SPOC (yet to start pumping crude from Block 5A, will meet the remaining production target capacity.