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Is Petronas an ungrateful child of Malaysia?

July 12, 2012

FMT LETTER: From Anas Alam Faizli, via e-mail

In early June Petronas hinted publicly at the World Gas Conference that they are tired of being the Malaysian government’s cash cow. They said no to fuel subsidy and last year they said they wanted to pay less dividends! Is Petronas ungrateful? The money belongs to the rakyat anyway and hence the government.

While many have attempted to comment on the sustainability of Petronas’ payouts, this article aims to give some insights into the realities of the local oil & gas industry, and why returning all oil harvests back to Malaysians may not benefit them in the longer run.

In 1974, Petronas, fully owned by the government of Malaysia, was established and given full ownership and control of our Petroleum reserves. Today, it has evolved into a fully integrated oil and gas multinational corporation, ranked among FORTUNE 500’s largest and most profitable oil and gas corporations with a total workforce of more than 30,000.

Many will credit Tun Abdul Razak and Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah as the founding fathers of Petronas. They have established solid foundations and values with which, the successive leadership and managements such as Tan Sri Azizan, Tan Sri Hassan Marican, and now, CEO Shamsul Azhar, were able to continue to uphold and flourish the corporation to its current stature.

These foundations have also made Petronas’ presence visible in more than 30 countries worldwide, that it is now dubbed the new “seven sisters”, a term originally coined by Italian businessmen Enrico Mattei, to refer to the likes of Exxon Mobil, Chevron, BP and Royal Dutch Shell.

Question 1: Is Malaysia too dependent on Petronas and its petroleum reserves for its economic survival?

Naturally, Petronas’ disbursements contribute a lion’s share to the growth and development of Malaysia. Let’s see the numbers. Since Petronas’ inception in 1974, it has been paying the Malaysian government a total of RM 529 .0 billion in dividends, taxes, petroleum proceeds and export duties. On top of that it has also been paying subsidies to TNB, IPPs and non-power parties a total of RM 136.5 billion since 1997. (Source: Petronas Annual Report 2011)

For the past five years since its Financial Year (FY) 2007, Petronas has been paying the Malaysian government about RM 61.0 billion each year, on average. Dividends alone, averaged 53.0% of Petronas’ annual profits, and are higher than the average of 38.0% paid by national oil companies around the world to their respective governments. Total monies disbursed to the government constitute an average of 41.0% of the Malaysian government’s total revenues.

This doesn’t end here, the Malaysian government has also utilised Petronas for various bail- outs, such was the case for Bank Bumiputera, RM 2.5 billion in 1985 and another billion in 1991. Through MISC in 1997, Petronas also bailed out Konsortium Perkapalan Berhad (KPB), which was facing losses to the tune of RM 2.0 billion at the time.

Not surprisingly, Petronas footed a few infrastructure bills too, including the RM 6.0 billion to construct the Petronas Twin Towers and RM 22.0 billion to complete the majestic Putrajaya.

Question 2:  Is Malaysia drying Up?

We all know fossil fuel is non-renewable and finite. Malaysian oil production registered the highest output at about 650,000 barrels per day (bpd) in 1994, persistently declining thereafter. 2002 saw a slight uptick but production trends have been back in the decline for the past three years, currently registering only about 600,000 barrels per day. For gas, based on projects already online, Malaysia’s domestic current gas production stands at 6.1 billion scfd. This is forecasted to decline to 1.5 billion scfd by 2025.

This is consistent with the world oil production growth trend, which was flat from 2005 to 2009. Journal of Energy Security (2008) has frighteningly concluded that there is limited potential to increase production of both gas and especially oil.

Saudi Aramco, the biggest oil and gas operator in Saudi, admitted that its mature fields are now declining at a distressing rate of 8.0% per year. According to an International Energy Agency (IEA) report (2007), based on 800 oilfields surveyed, global supply sees production decline to 6.7% a year.

Remaining untapped Malaysian oil and gas reserves are also not as abundant as before. What previously were just parcels of marginal oil fields are now “opportunities” we scurry to put our foot onto. If I haven’t painted a gloomy enough picture, productions from the existing oilfields in Malaysia are either near its peak, or are already declining.

The oil and gas reserves left available for development are more difficult to be developed as the reserves are either marginal, (typically less attractive economically) or are located deepwater, representing more technological challenges. Studies have also shown that in Malaysia, not even vastly increased investment in exploration and production can ensure increased output, especially in mature petroleum regions.

Between 1974 and 1978, a total of 40 exploration wells were drilled, resulting in the discovery of 1,580 million barrels of oil equivalent (mmboe), adding to our oil and gas reserves. However, between 2004 and 2008, a total of 140 wells were drilled (that is 3.5 times more wells), but this only resulted in the discovery of 1,050 mmboe!

The current average recovery factor from producing fields in Malaysia is at 33.0%. This number can be improved, and we can get more from the ground, but it will require expensive technology.

What does this mean? Well, for one thing, more complex and expensive technology will be required to increase production of oil and gas from marginal fields and deepwater offshore areas, i.e. Petronas needs to have deeper pockets.

Question 3
: How much cash do we need to sustain the business?

It is estimated that in 2012, the global oil and gas industry will register a total capital expenditure of more than RM3.0 trillion. According to Pemandu, future growth in upstream Malaysian oil and gas will come from initiatives such as Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR) methods, “innovative” approaches to the development of marginal fields and intensification of exploration activities undertaken by oil and gas operators in Malaysia and also the exploration of deepwater discoveries.

As nice and dandy as this may sound, this is extremely costly and operators like Petronas Carigali will need the cash to finance these initiatives. Petronas has largely attempted to mitigate this by emerging on the international scene, expanding its operations into 30 other countries. This is a strategic move; a result of foresight on the part of management, and possibly the government, in addressing concerns over the “mortality” of Malaysian oil wells.

At the same conference, CEO and MD, Datuk Shamsul also argued that now is the time to acquire cheap overseas stakes to supplement the depleting production. This too, needs cash. In fact, Petronas needs about RM 300 billion in the next five years in capital investment, as it has announced last year. Some might argue that this cash can easily be borrowed through sukuk and bonds issuances but building a sturdy cash reserve should be priority too.

Question 4: Is our local oil and gas services industry at its full potential?

A rough estimate would show that at least RM 1.0 trillion has been spent for the Malaysian oil and gas industry, as capital expenditure for development over the past 38 years. How much of this capital has cascaded down the value chain locally? One indicator is that there are about 25 oil and gas companies listed (based on the Industrial Classification Benchmark) on Bursa Malaysia with total revenues of RM73.0 billion.

As a comparison, Singapore, which is not an oil and gas producing nation, domiciles 31 oil and gas companies with revenues of RM 149.0 billion! Indeed, there have been visible, local oil and gas industry players like the Malaysian Marine Heavy Engineering (RM 9.0 billion market cap), and the recently merged SapuraKencana Petroleum (RM 11.0 billion market cap) who have emerged as regionally competitive fabrication and marine players.

But how do these look, compared to the amount of CAPEX that we have spent in developing our local oil and gas industry? Furthermore, how are they compared to other global players like Hyundai Heavy Engineering, Samsung Heavy Industries, Keppel Shipyard, Sembcorp Marine and McDermott to name a few?

To be fair, we have successfully groomed and developed local expertise in all sectors of oil and gas. This ranges from engineering, fabrication, offshore installation and commissioning, specialised equipments, skill labourers and the list goes on. Our local talent pool is also competitive globally and is working everywhere across the globe. Local engineering design houses like Ranhill Worley, RNZ Engineering and MMC O&G are also of international standards.

Another strategic parallel that deserves credit are attempts to grow our domestic oil and gas sector to transform Malaysia into an oil and gas hub. This means regionally and globally, players will come to Malaysia for their A to Z oil and gas needs. A project like RAPID is a good start to becoming that “hub”. Let us make Malaysia the Houston of Asia Pacific!

But, there are also other sectors within the industry which we can further develop our capabilities in; namely (1) equipments manufacturing and (2) oil & gas services. Local operators have always had to depend on imports of specialized equipments like turbo machineries (heavy generators and compressors), pumps, multiphase meters, electrical and instrument control equipments, super sized valves.

This is one area of opportunity for local manufacturers. From the oil & gas services perspective, we should also nurture and grow our local players to an extent that they can provide world class and value-added services at competitive rates; at par with the Schlumbergers and the Halliburtons of the world. When these are achieved, we can depend less on actual oil, and still have an oil & gas industry, even when our motherland herself has run dry.

Food for thought

Since last year, Petronas has been mulling over the idea to lower its annual dividends paid to the government through a new proposed dividend calculation format; using a percentage of profit instead of an absolute amount. This means Petronas pay less, if they make less that year. This idea has actually been supported by Former Prime Minister Tun Mahathir (one cannot help but think it is because the spending had been done in his days).

And recently, discussions at the World Gas Conference have openly questioned the legitimacy of subsidising gas. Fact remains that if we continue to depend heavily on Petronas, there is risk of stunting its full potential growth, as we reduce Petronas’ cash reserve. For the past five years, Petronas has been spending on average 28.5% as CAPEX from its free cash flow (FCF). In contrast, Royal Dutch Shell, with among the highest reinvestment ratios in the world, reinvests a whopping 75.0% of its FCF, dwarfing that of Petronas’!

We depend on oil and gas income very much and it has become an indispensable instrument of the state, so much so that we cannot begin to imagine living without it. It goes without saying that efforts to reduce this dependency on this “ungrateful” child should be made. This is to not weigh him down to much at the expense of its growth, and more importantly to ensure Malaysia does not end up without a “retirement plan.”

So is Petronas ungrateful? Or are they simply trying to be the obedient child that is politely proposing a counter offer, for the betterment of this nation that it belongs to?

Anas Alam Faizli is currently serving an international oil and gas operator. He holds a Master’s degree in Project Management and is currently pursuing a doctorate in business administration. His research is in capital investment evaluation practices and decision making.


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