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Senegal's offshore oil plans inch ahead

Cairn seeks to manage expectations, as reserve estimates grow

Cairn Energy is pushing on with exploration and appraisal around its existing Senegalese offshore oil finds, as it seeks to move ahead with what could be one of the largest frontier oil developments of the next few years. The explorer says it doesn't want to fall into the trap of promising an overly ambitious schedule to a government eager to see early returns from the project, but the low prevailing drilling costs still make rapid progress attractive.

A third phase of exploration drilling got underway in early 2017, using the Stena DrillMax rig, with two appraisal wells planned and several further ones possible, including on new exploration prospects. The first of the appraisal wells, SNE-5, was drilled in January and February to a total depth of 2,852 metres below the mud line.

Results from the two earlier phases, in which six wells were drilled, have led to regular resource upgrades, confirming the potential of the FAN-1 and SNE-1 discoveries made in 2014, to the southwest of the capital Dakar, midway down the Senegalese coast. Cairn's latest estimates put 2C recoverable reserves at 475m barrels and gross oil in place at greater than 2.7bn barrels. Australian explorer Far, the original licence holder for the acreage that still retains a 15% stake in the venture, has consistently been more bullish than Cairn with its estimates and currently puts 2C reserves at 0.641bn barrels.

Mindful of the hype surrounding the development, Paul Mayland, Cairn's chief operating officer says the company is determined not to fall victim to the dangers of over-promising just to keep the host government happy. He told IP Week in London recently that he had witnessed several projects flounder because the completion schedule had been set too tightly, so that even small setbacks could result in a failure to meet host government expectations.

"As an engineer, I do see quite a lot of projects that are executed well, particularly recognising the technological and political challenges they face. But because the schedule was set very ambitiously and very aggressively early on, then later, the trade off is disappointment," he said.

In Senegal, a country with virtually no experience of the oil and gas industry, Cairn was keen to establish a realistic timeline for development immediately after making its first significant discoveries in 2014. That currently means taking a final decision on sanctioning a production development in 2018-19, with first output envisaged for 2021-23.

One option on the table is for a 140,000-barrels-a-day floating production, storage and offloading vessel with expansion capability for satellite tie-backs. Fare says development expenditure for that project is estimated at $13-15 a barrel, with operating expenditure of $12-14/b. Breakeven is estimated at $35/b.

Timeline on track

For all the talk of not rushing things, Cairn won't want the timetable to slip much from the plan, given the risk that drilling costs could start to edge up again if demand for oilfield services and equipment increases along with the oil price in coming years. Mayfield says exploration costs in 2017 are around half of what they were in 2013-14, making the development a much more attractive proposition for investors.

The chances of staying on track look positive at present. Reserves are growing with every drilling campaign, relations with the government of President Macky Sall—a former petroleum geologist himself—appear good and, while the Senegalese economy is far from buoyant, the country has proved to be one of the most politically stable in the region.

But there are unlikely to be blue skies all the way. The government has yet to put in place structures capable of handling oil and gas revenues, likely to surpass anything the country has experienced, seen in a transparent and efficient manner. Not only could oil revenues be flowing in from the Cairn-led project, but the country could also be poised to become a liquefied natural gas exporter if Kosmos Energy's Greater Tortue gas discovery straddling the Senegal-Mauritania maritime boundary is commercialised—something made more likely by BP's acquisition of a major stake in that development in December.

To help the government, the World Bank is putting in place a $20m technical assistance grant to fund legal and other specialist advice to aid the development of a regulatory framework for the industry. Improving offshore licensing is another priority. A new body established by the government, Cos-Petrogaz, is responsible for this, but its powers remain undefined and it has yet to be properly staffed.

There may be political clouds on the horizon too. Many Senegalese remain sceptical that oil and gas developments will benefit them, as they cast a jaundiced eye towards Nigeria and Angola, where oil riches have not led to prosperity for all. Meanwhile, rifts threaten to open up in the alliance that enabled Macky Sall to take power following elections in 2012. The next presidential election is not until 2019, but the outcome of legislative elections in July 2017 could unsettle Senegal's political landscape, with the future of the oil and gas industry likely to feature prominently.

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