Forgotten Oil – Why NO One Seeking ‘Pro-poor’ Job at NOCAL

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The current state of the National Oil Company of Liberia (NOCAL) presents clear evidence that government jobs is not about public service but an opportunity for people with access to power to accumulate wealth.

Once a flourishing public entity, the state owned Oil Company is now a ghost land or a non-essential state owned enterprise that has survived the job rush in the Weah’s administration.

So far, not one person wants a ‘pro-poor’ job here because the entity is dry just as the oil wells are dry.

This is perhaps the biggest irony shrouding the Weah’s presidency narrative. The former national team Captain and FIFA world Footballer promised to implement reforms that would revitalize the economy and create job in a country he says is experiencing an unprecedented unemployment crisis.

It would thus become obvious for a reform minded leader to focus on the marketing and development of the nation’s hydrocarbon industry, which has an immense potential of powering the domestic economy.

According to the US Geological Survey, as reported by the Economist Intelligence Unit, oil and gas reserves off the West African Coastal Province (which includes both Liberian
and Sierra Leonean territorial waters) are estimated at 3.2bn
barrels. Liberia oil basin consist of 30 concessionary block

Between 2009 and 2014 NOCAL was a top profitable state company in the country, attracting billion dollar oil giants like Chevron and ExxonMobil. Millions of dollars were generated via signatures fees, licensing and geo seismic data information from various multinational oil companies.

But the story has suddenly changed. ExxonMobil (block 13) and Chevron (Block14) are the only operators within the Liberian basin. NOCAL cash has fizzled into private pockets to the extent that it is no more a source of revenue for national government.

Headquartered on a floor in a five-story building at the Corner of Ashman and Randall Street in the capital Monrovia, the company looks like a dissented town when this writer show up there Tuesday wanting to know the its current status.

This once busy office has become an isolated place. The few staff here are looking up to the sky hoping for the return of the booming years that were undermined by state sanctioned theft and falling world prices.

“We are left in limbo,” a male staff said as I made my way out of this building that looks like a cemetery. “We are waiting to see what next.”

After more than 50 days in office, President George Weah has made no public statement about NOCAL and no one has been appointed to lead the reform of the oil and gas sector.

In a country where people pursue government jobs that deliver quick riches than sacrificing and bring innovation that will benefit the country’s poor, it appears there is a shortage of willing lieutenants within the President’s circle to take on the NOCAL’s mission.

There is a nightmarish tale associated with NOCAL and the country’s hydrocarbon sector. This West African country continues to encounter misfortune in its quest to become an oil producing country since the 1950s. Between 2010 and 2016 about nine wells have been drilled unsuccessfully.

The 2016 ExxonMobil disappointment and the UK-based African Petroleum 2012 fiasco made the situation more pronounced. African Petroleum announced a potentially
meaningful oil discovery in 2012, but would quit four years later in 2016 citing lack of discoveries as main reason for departing Liberia’s shores.

At this point, all eyes were set on ExxonMobil that was drilling. Profile has been raised in the western media as coveted, attracting market confidence and global interest about
The Mersurado-1 deepwater exploration well located about 50 ml (80 km) off Liberia in Block LB-13, which the American oil super-major was operating

But sadly when ExxonMobil Exploration and Production Liberia Ltd concluded its first drilling operation in the Country’s deepwater offshore basin on December 17, 2016 not finding oil.

Cllr. Althea Sherman, then Interim President and Chief Executive Officer of the National Oil Company of Liberia (NOCAL) outlined the task at hand and what it would take to change the course.

“Liberia is disappointed with the result of ExxonMobil. Under these circumstances, it is important that we create the environment that will draw in the investors,” she said.

“Study shows we do have a working hydrocarbon system. We have to get the investors to drill. That’s the only way we will get to commercial find and have maximum impact on our economy.”

In the aftermath of the ExxonMobil misadventure, Sherman and her interim management team commenced talks with geophysics company – TGS NOPEC to lower the price of the country’s seismic data to encourage international oil companies to venture into the oil and gas sector.

Ensuring independence and transparency in the sector, on October 10, the legislature enacted a new petroleum law, which created the Liberia Petroleum Regulatory Authority (LPRA). This entity will oversee competitive bidding and avoid the practice of direct negotiation with oil companies. The law reduces state equity share in petroleum sharing contracts from 20% to 10 percent.

It is also expected to position the country to beat competition from neighboring countries like Sierra Leone and maintain the presence of international oil firms in the country.

“The passage of the new law has been well received by the market. This could be very positive for Liberia. Our program is highly risky evidence by the recent drilling result by ExxonMobil. We are deep offshore. We have to ensure that we have the environment that will be conducive,” she said.

Over 90 percent of the country’s offshore blocks are open following recent termination relinquishment of contracts held by contractors including Anadarko and European Hydrocarbon Limited, a statement on NOCAL website said.

Cllr. Althea Sherman and team have left NOCAL following the election and inauguration of President Weah.

In February this year she wrote the following while responding to a Front Page Africa publication regarding alleged corruption at NOCAL with clarification that she played no role.

“ Although we inherited a company in extreme financial distress and on the brink of dissolution, the Interim Management team and I took steps to efficiently and responsibly manage the corporation’s financial and human resources, proactively engaged investors to restart industry interest in Liberia’s oil program and have secured revenue that will permit NOCAL to function for at least the next two years (if prudently and properly managed) and allow sufficient time for the new administration to take necessary steps to implement Liberia’s new petroleum law.”

Write Festus Poquie