By JEFFREY BALL
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
December 5, 2005; Page C1
KIZOMBA B, Atlantic Ocean -- Floating about 100 miles off the coast of Angola is a shiny new ship, three football fields long, that is part of a project pumping 550,000 barrels of oil each day out of some of the most desirable underwater oil fields in the world. Every four days, on average, a supertanker sails into the area like a car pulling into a gas station, fills up and heads off to a refinery somewhere around the globe.
Global oil prices are high in part because of concern the industry is having a hard time pumping enough crude to keep pace with growing demand. Like its competitors, Exxon Mobil Corp., the world's largest publicly traded oil company, is under pressure to show it is finding and tapping massive new troves of fossil fuel. Exxon heads a group of oil companies that began pumping oil from this ship earlier this year, a venture it cites as exhibit A when skeptics question its ability to produce new oil.
Kizomba B also represents a turning point for the energy industry and its investors: An increasing percentage of the world's oil supplies are expected to come from the waters off West Africa -- in particular, off Angola. With Western oil giants largely barred from getting at oil in the Middle East and other resource-rich regions, this area is one of the most promising new pieces of turf.
It is also a tough place to do business: The oil is owned by national governments that demand ever-larger cuts of the profits generated when outside companies pump up and sell their buried treasure.
Energy companies, from "super majors" like Exxon to smaller players, are flocking here to sate global customers whose thirst drove the price of crude to a 2005 high of nearly $71 a barrel. Friday, crude-futures contracts on the New York Mercantile Exchange closed at $59.32. That demand in turn has led to record profits for oil companies.
By 2015, West Africa will be the world's No. 1 oil source outside the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, predicts PFC Energy, an industry consultant in Washington. Africa will be the biggest single source of oil for Exxon by 2010.
Angola is West Africa's No. 2 oil producer, behind Nigeria. Its daily output, 100,000 barrels in the early 1970s, has shot up to 1.2 million barrels, and the Angolan government says it plans to boost production to two million barrels a day by 2010.
The government has carved the waters off Angola's coast into a chessboard of oil-producing zones known as blocks. Among the most notable is a 1,600-square-mile swath of the Atlantic known as Block 15. In 1994, Exxon and its partners signed a deal with the Angolan government giving the group a 10-year license to hunt for oil there. When the license expired last year, the group had discovered and secured production rights for 17 subsea fields.
The Exxon-led group has tapped five fields that together are producing those 550,000 barrels of oil a day. Exxon gets 40% of that oil, meaning Block 15 accounts for 9% of all the oil Exxon is producing world-wide.
Exxon is confident there is more oil to be found in Block 15: "That's probably the greatest single prize out there at this point," said Terry McPhail, Exxon's top manager in Angola.
But the prize is controlled by Sonangol, Angola's national oil company. And Sonangol is soliciting offers from all bidders.
Last month, Sonangol held a roadshow in an upscale Houston hotel at which its executive presented a slideshow boasting of the billions of barrels of oil they are confident remain trapped off their coast. Interested parties have until early next year to bid for the rights to several offshore blocks, including the unexplored portions of Block 15.
Exxon has become one of Angola's biggest oil producers. How keen the company is to expand production in the waters off Angola was clear on a recent day as Mark Albers, president of Exxon's development unit, led a tour of Kizomba B.
As he walked around the ship in an orange jumpsuit, the 48-year-old Exxon executive assumed the role of salesman, stressing Exxon's record of reliability and efficiency. Largely through a process Exxon calls "design one, build multiple," a kind of cookie-cutter approach to developing huge offshore projects, Exxon got the Kizomba B project built for $3.5 billion, about 10% less than the $3.9 billion the company says the project otherwise would have cost. Exxon boasts that the project also was up and running several months ahead of schedule.
Yet the Chinese are an increasing presence on the Angolan oil scene -- and one welcomed by the Angolan government. Recently, in an incident widely noted in the global oil industry, when Royal Dutch Shell PLC was considering selling a 50% stake in another Angolan oil block to an Indian company, Sonangol intervened and ensured the stake was sold to a Chinese company, China Petrochemical Corp., known as Sinopec.
Many observers surmise Sonangol stepped in as a reward to the Chinese government, which had extended a $2 billion loan, at essentially no interest, to Angola to help the civil-war-torn country rebuild. A Sonangol executive denied the loan was an influence and said any company interested in Angola's oil fields has to put forth a compelling bid.
Bidding they are: Exxon was one of about 40 companies that showed up at Sonangol's Houston roadshow.
Write to Jeffrey Ball at firstname.lastname@example.org
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