Johnny Blades | Radio New Zealand | 16 April 2019
Papua New Guinea’s government is under pressure over its handling of the country’s burgeoning gas sector.
The government last week agreed terms for the $US13-billion Papua LNG project, based on the Elk / Antelope gas field in Gulf Province, to be led by French company Total.
Two days later, PNG’s Finance Minister James Marape resigned, citing a breakdown of trust in prime minister Peter O’Neill and the government’s handling of landowner participation in oil and gas developments in the Highlands.
Along with claims about feasibility, the resignation adds to a sense of uncertainty over the Papua LNG developer which traces right down to the grassroots.
A village leader in Gulf Province said local people had not been briefed yet on what having the project on their land meant for them.
For Solomon Lae, a chief in Kapai Aikavalavi village, the lack of consultation reflects how the nation’s political leaders have long milked the benefits of the country’s resources.
“We have never had the opportunity to be clear on exactly what is going to happen in the province,” he said.
“There are no public servants who can be able to tell the people, the illiterate, the silent majority, what’s going to happen in the gas and oil industry. It’s a new elephant for us.”
Mr Marape, the former finance minister, is the MP for Tari in Hela province, the hub of the PNG LNG Project the country’s first gas development.
Ten years after its project agreement, many of Mr Marape’s constituents are frustrated with the government because they are yet to see promised benefits from the venture.
Meanwhile, the ‘clan vetting’ process in Gulf Province to establish the rightful landowners to receive benefits and royalties is still not complete.
According to opposition MP and the member for Kerema in Gulf Province, Richard Mendani, instability in the government’s ranks is linked to the way it is rushing through the new gas project without properly consulting all stakeholders.
“The current government is under pressure to improve on this performance. There’s a lot of talk and a lot of political movements within Waigani,” Mr Mendani said.
“I’m so surprised that the current government, the PM and Total have, without any proper consultation, gone in and signed off the project agreement.”
But PNG’s Treasurer Charles Abel said the agreement was only one part of the process and that landowners would later be part of discussions for the Benefit Sharing Agreement.
“The signing of the gas agreement, it just establishes the broad fiscal terms to enable the developer to obtain financing and give them comfort to spend a bit more money into the Front End Engineering Design process,” he explained.
“In the intervening period, they’ve got to complete all the landowner registration and more of that work has been done.”
The state has a 22.5 percent interest in the Papua LNG Project, of which two percent is on behalf of landowners, with a two percent development levy for the provincial government and local level administrations.
According to Mr Abel, other features of the project’s terms include a corporate tax rate of 30 per cent, and obligations to supply PNG’s domestic gas market at a discount price.
Compared to the PNG LNG Project, which began exports five years ago, there are significant improvements from a landowners’ perspective, Mr Abel said.
This time the government has been granted a waiver on immediate payment of its share of project costs, while the venture’s benefits are carefully structured, ensuring revenues even when commodity prices are low, he said.
“The landowners are getting a better benefit but the state is not unduly putting itself into a difficult financial situation,” the treasurer said.
“When the oil price collapsed, there was very little benefit from the PNG LNG Project, and yet we were lumped with all the obligations to meet all the obligations we made to the landowners and then we hadn’t even done the (clan) vetting exercise properly. So, we’ve learnt from this process.”
Chief Solomon Lae, however, is doubtful the government has changed its approach from other resource extraction projects.
“Our people in this country, they never learn from the previous experiences. Southern Highlanders are waiting ten years and are yet to receive royalties,” Mr Lae noted.
“The leaders of this country, they’re elected to represent our people. But that is never the case. They’re milking us. Daylight robbery.”
But Prime Minister Peter O’Neill has said the Papua LNG Project’s expected investment of nearly $US13 billion will benefit local communities and create jobs.
He told local media that the domestic supply obligation was an important step for resources development in the country.
“The petroleum and energy sector looks very bright in PNG,” Mr O’Neill said.
However, explosive claims have surfaced from a former senior technical officer at the Department of Petroleum that the Elk / Antelope gas field is a very marginal resource, lacking gas volumes to sustain a major project.
This was related in a review by a team of geoscientists and engineers, presented to the O’Neill government and its Papua Project partners, Total, ExxonMobil and Oil Search, in 2017.
Despite this, the government is proceeding with the Papua LNG Project, in which it has a significant financial stake. For over five years, the prime minister has been determined for the venture to go ahead.
The government’s controversial purchase of a ten percent stake in Oil Search in 2014 was an executive decision said by cabinet members to have been made Mr O’Neill without their support.
It sparked a fallout at the time with his former Treasurer, Don Polye, who was sacked for opposing the decision. Mr O’Neill is facing a potential motion of no-confidence next month in parliament, and will be looking to stem the tide of discontent within his government.
Pressure over this gas project is rising, as is the political heat in PNG.