Two steps backward to move forward: The energy sector moves in the right direction

Thal Sandy Tun analyzes recent shifts seen in Myanmar’s energy sector.

This post is part of Tea Circle’s “2018 Year in Review” series, which looks back at developments in different fields over the last year.

Home to one of the world’s oldest oil and gas industries, oil exploration in Myanmar began in the early Bagan era. During the reign of King Anawrahta in the Bagan Era, evidence shows that the Buddha’s Three Teachings were coated with oil to prevent damage. With the nationalization of the oil industry in 1963, the newly formed state oil company, called the Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE) undertook all operations of the industry. In 1988, in an effort to revive the struggling industry, the government opened it to foreign oil companies.

Myanmar’s proven natural gas reserves are about 1,820 billions of cubic feet (BCF) and its crude oil reserves are estimated to top 139 million barrels. With Myanmar now open to international exploration, major international oil companies are making substantial investments in the country, using updated technology to discover new deposits. Being a sector with a great deal of potential to contribute to the socio-economic development of the country in this era of change, it’s worth reviewing that it is only in recent years that Myanmar’s oil and gas industry has made strides in regard to its duty to provide a reliable energy supply. The last year, in particular, has seen developments in some areas and setbacks in others.

Reshuffle of the MOEE Portfolio

The NLD government, which came to power in March 2016, has been said to be slow in developing clear economic policies, and its energy policies are no exception. Beginning from its inauguration, the Ministry of Energy and Electricity (MOEE) was headed by U Pe Zin Tun, the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Energy under the former government. He resigned less than two years later with little done in terms of solving the country’s energy crisis, although this is mainly the responsibility of the ministry. As of July 2017, Minister for the Ministry of Construction, U Win Khaing, officially took over the Ministry of Energy and Electricity.  

Indeed, the energy sector is one that has not been living up to expectations, though there are still a few key activities to note. A period of low oil prices coincided with the development of Myanmar’s offshore fields, where exploration has proved to be very risky and pricey— a single deep-water well can cost upwards of US$50 million. In fact, some blocks, exactly 11, were relinquished by foreign investors on the grounds that they wanted to invest in other businesses following the warning from MOGE to drop or drill in late 2017. These include India’s Reliance Industries, which dropped blocks M-17 and M-18, and Australia’s Tap Oil, which made an exit from block M-7. In addition, Shell has dropped some deep-water assets and extended the study periods for others. Therefore, despite the potential existence of energy reserves, Myanmar has been unable to meet its growing demand for power over the course of time.

Offshore Supply Bases (OSB)

An important development in the year 2017 has been the Myanmar Investment Commission’s approval of offshore supply bases. A big hurdle for international oil and gas companies operating in the country comes from the lack of an offshore supply base. There is only one supply base owned by MOGE in Yangon, and the nearest platforms are in Singapore and Thailand. Oil and gas companies in Myanmar use supply bases in those two countries, which are at least 4-5 days away by boat. The day rate of a drill ship is over USD 350,000 per day and vessels need about ten days for roundtrip travel to and from Singapore. Therefore, the cost is enormous for oil and gas companies to operate off the coast of Myanmar— which means that Myanmar is deprived of an important economic activity while other countries benefit from operations in its waters.  

The right to build and operate the supply bases that would make the country’s oil and gas industry more profitable has long been recognized as a lucrative opportunity. A domestic offshore supply base would make supplies for drilling activities cheaper, available within a shorter time, and quicker, in terms of assuring an easier customs clearance— thereby successfully addressing the needs of its own offshore operators. While previously it was projected that Myanmar would need two or three offshore supply bases, last year, the Myanmar Investment Commission provided a series of permits for up to six offshore supply base projects, some of which are likely to be in operation as early as 2020.

Plans to Import LNG for Domestic Electricity Production

Following the start of 2018, we have begun to see an exciting phase unfold in the country’s energy landscape, after the reshuffling of the head of the MOEE and the resultant period of silence on the country’s energy plans. Recently, Myanmar’s government has announced that LNG imports will be used to address energy gaps before new domestic gas comes online.

According to an MOEE official, domestic gas will continue to be an export item used to secure foreign exchange, while liquefied natural gas will help meet the growing electricity needs in the country, reversing what was earlier reiterated by the ministry: that local needs must be prioritised in new field developments.

In the short term and medium term, Myanmar has to rely on its gas power plants to meet the growing electricity demand, though securing gas for electricity generation has been a formidable challenge that could possibly be solved by the recent establishment of LNG import schemes. On the other hand, a long-term energy plan should focus on a well-balanced mix of sustainable energy by optimizing the use of a variety of existing energy sources, based on a concrete projection of how much energy will be needed to ensure economic development and national electrification.

A Geological Forum to Pave the Way Forward

In mid-March 2018, a geological forum was held by the MOGE— the state-owned oil and gas company, operator, service provider and regulator of the oil and gas sector in Myanmar, under the Ministry of Energy and Electricity.

The forum, focusing on the upstream sector, gathered together MOGE officials, international oil and gas companies operating in Myanmar, academics, and energy professionals, with an aim to encourage knowledge-sharing on new concepts and technologies that might help resolve the challenges posed by the complex geological composition of Myanmar’s petroleum systems. Only when this challenge is managed will the discovery of more oil and gas proceed, onshore and offshore in Myanmar. One hopes that the forum will assist the ministry to show the way forward.

Another Bidding Round with Better Rules

Currently, Myanmar has 51 offshore blocks for natural gas production; 38 were tendered during former president U Thein Sein’s term, according to the MOEE. Therefore, 13 blocks are available for tendering. In early April, there was news that another bidding round will come around this year. This is expected to take place after a review of the current terms and conditions of the oil and gas contracts is made. Key areas that industry experts have identified as in need of improvement include the fiscal terms of the current Production Sharing Contracts (PSCs)— which were created before the 2014 drop in oil prices— and the accountability of the MOEE, in regard to the management of the oil and gas industry.

As one example related to the first of these areas, according to the standards of the country’s PSCs, the government, which is the resource owner, is fully protected from all risks involved in oil and gas exploration and production— risks to which private investors are exposed as they have to undertake all the investment and work programs associated with finding, developing, and producing natural gas; meanwhile, the lion’s share of the produced oil and gas— at least 60% of the total production— goes into the government’s pocket. Many other petroleum-producing countries around the world use such mechanisms, with different terms and conditions.

Presently, the ministry has reportedly been reviewing the terms and conditions of its contracts ahead of its plan for carrying out another bidding round this year. One hopes that more players would be involved in the process, leading the ministry to produce an outcome that provides a level playing field, as well as one that boosts investors’ confidence in the industry.

What’s in the pipeline?

In mid- and late-2018, we are likely to see activity from the toughest in the industry. PTT Exploration and Production (PTTEP) has reaffirmed its commitment to the oil and gas sector in Myanmar, although it admitted that there are challenges related to exploration in the frontier. It is expected that PTTEP will begin exploration work at M-9 and M-11 offshore fields in 2018. The company said that there are challenges associated with the identification of an economical and efficient method to bring the gas online, and that it can only be done through an effective combination of innovative technologies and people. Another foreign entity, Malaysian state-owned oil company Petronas, said that it will commence drilling wells in M-12, M-13 and M-14 in Tanintharyi Region during the last quarter of 2018.

MPRL E&P, a local independent oil and gas company, has also introduced three options for its A-6 block, having made successive discoveries over the last few years. The company stated that if all sandy channels of the block are gas-bearing, economics may well justify an LNG project which includes tie-back options to either Total’s Yadana gas field or Posco Daewoo’s Shwe gas field, either for local power generation or for export to Thailand or China. The company is planning to drill a new appraisal well and, in parallel, will carry out studies for developing the gas from the block.

In conclusion, the oil crisis that began in 2014, saw oil prices slump to less than $30 a barrel over the course of the years that followed. Today, thanks to aggressive cost-cutting exercises and oil prices making a return to $60 a barrel, many national and international oil and gas companies in the upstream sector are getting ready to resume their exploration and production activities again. It is likely that Myanmar’s oil and gas industry will improve the way it works by reflecting such changes in the wider industry, thus remaining competitive. In this regard, we have to identify lessons learned and apply best practices that carefully address our own challenges.  

Thal Sandy Tun works for the Corporate Social Responsibility & Communications Department of MPRL E&P Pte Ltd. in Yangon. She has a B.A. in English from Yangon University of Foreign Languages and has also studied in Japan.