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Buyers' market for oil companies in Davos

Christophe de Margerie, chariman and chief executive of Total attends a session at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos January 25, 2014.
Christophe de Margerie, chariman and chief executive of Total attends a session at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos January 25, 2014.

By Dmitry Zhdannikov

DAVOS, Switzerland (Reuters) - Oil executives normally travel the world to win big contracts - but rarely do government officials travel the other way.

This week in Davos, however, some of the most powerful oil CEOs gathered on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum and were presented with an embarrassment of riches.

While the appearance of Iran's new president and oil minister in front of the heads of BP , ENI , Total and Lukoil made most headlines, the executives also heard presentations by officials from Canada, Mozambique and Mexico.

The head of BP Bob Dudley drew a simple conclusion: "It just shows how big the shifts are in the industry."

Oil prices peaked at $147 a barrel in 2008 amid growing fears that the world was running out of oil. Five years on, oil is considered plentiful thanks to the U.S. shale oil revolution and the discovery of massive oil and gas fields elsewhere.

Some executives are beginning to talk about an easing of resource nationalism, one of the hottest topics in the industry over the past decade as countries such as Russia and Kazakhstan became increasingly assertive about developing their reserves themselves.

"Today a number of countries which have huge reserves of oil and gas begin to say that they need investments to develop them," said the head of Lukoil Vagit Alekperov.

"It is not only Iran. It is Mexico, East Africa. We have seen a period of national protectionism when unfortunately we could not access some countries because it was all run by national companies. Today the situation changes," he said.

CAPITAL DIET

Privately-held Lukoil, which is limited in accessing giant fields in its home base Russia, this week signed a memorandum to study projects in Mexico with state energy company Pemex as the country opens up its energy sector to boost production.

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto last month signed a bill into law that ended the country's 75-year-old oil and gas monopoly.

Iranian President Hasan Rouhani called on oil companies in Davos to return to Iran as part of Tehran's move for a rapprochement with the West. Meanwhile, Canada and Mozambique are tapping some of the world's biggest oil and gas fields.

For oil majors, that means one thing: Their bargaining power is as great as ever as a huge number of large projects compete for their money.

"I made it clear some time ago I'm not going back to Iran under old contract terms even if all sanctions are lifted," said the chief executive of ENI Paolo Scaroni.

The stiff competition between projects comes as oil majors slash their budgets in response to shareholders' calls on them to stop overspending and increase dividend payouts.

"We are all on a capital diet right now, and that means that some of these projects won't be developed unless terms are attractive," the CEO of one oil major said. That presents an opportunity for players who in the old days would always lose out to majors.

"Majors will no longer be developing the lion's share of big projects in the world. But it doesn't necessarily mean they will remain undeveloped. I expect national oil companies like China's CNPC and even mid-sized independents to step in and fill the space," another oil executive said.

(Editing by Hugh Lawson)

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