Managing Hydrocarbon Resources in a New Era: The Call from Algeria

The 1990s will be remembered for the extensive restructuring oil and gas companies went through to adapt to the fundamental changes affecting their markets, their resource areas and their global business environment. However, while mega-mergers, acquisitions and other novel alliances made the headlines, little has been said about the trend towards privatisation of state oil companies world-wide. The exception is the lengthy debate about Statoil’s proposal for a ‘new ownership structure’ and the resulting changes in the role of the state in managing Norwegian hydrocarbon resources. New evidence from Algeria points to a similar move. However, contrary to the Norwegian case where the initiative came from Statoil’s management, in Algeria the move to privatise Sonatrach originates from forces outside the company. If Algeria goes ahead with the proposal it will become the first OPEC country to change the structure of state’s ownership in the hydrocarbon industry.

In a context where it is still controversial, privatisation means different things to different people. It may simply be used to cover the changing relationship between host governments and the international private oil companies. In this sense it is often associated with the (re-) opening of the upstream sector in most of the OPEC area, which has tended to be interpreted as a partial or total reversal of the process of nationalisation initiated in the early 1970s. Although in some cases international oil companies have never ceased to be involved, the opening up in other countries came as a result of the weakening of their economy. The collapse of oil prices in the mid- 1980s simply reduced the capital base available to national oil companies (NOCs) for financing their exploration and development programmes. In addition, NOCs pursuing rent maximisation objectives became increasingly embroiled in a complex and ambiguous relationship with their government owners. As a result, they lacked the incentives to improve efficiency and lagged behind private oil companies in terms of managerial skills, business practices and technological advances. Therefore, private oil companies were invited back to provide the capital, technology and expertise needed to expand the resource base from which host governments could increase revenues.

More straightforwardly, to some privatisation also means the sale of publicly-owned assets. In this sense it is often associated with the process of structural adjustment most indebted oil-producing countries have embarked upon with the support of the multilateral lending institutions. As a result, privatisation of state companies became part of a package of reforms aimed at the radical transformation of their entire economic system from a state-controlled, oil-dependent one to a market-oriented and private sector-led one. However, because of its strategic importance and the emblematic nature of NOCs, the oil and gas industry has remained immune from any such fundamental restructuring.

The new drive towards full liberalisation of the Algerian hydrocarbon sector marks a watershed. It is linked to a process of changes which was inaugurated in the 1980s. In 1986 the government, which never closed completely the oil upstream sector, relaxed its terms of access. This move was extended to the gas upstream sector in 1991 and further to the exploitation of existing oil fields as well as to the transportation sector. Later, in a context of a balance of payments crisis, Algeria agreed on a long-resisted IMF programme of structural reforms and embarked on negotiations for ‘conditionality’ measures to reschedule its crippling external debt. As a result, major steps have been taken by successive governments to restructure the economy. The most recent move put emphasis on reducing the state’s economic role in the hydrocarbon sector and changing the relationship between the government and Sonatrach. This new policy direction covers a whole agenda of liberalisation and restructuring of the hydrocarbon industry. Draft legislation providing for new regulations and institutional arrangements is intended to offer a more competitive framework upstream, promote open access to the transportation system and liberalise the downstream activities.

In addition to introducing competition into Sonatrach’s statutory monopoly, the hallmark of the government’s new policy in the hydrocarbon sector is opening up the possibility for the state company to resort to new financing schemes, including the opening of its capital to ‘minority and atomistic’ equity investors. Because it is still an emotive and politically sensitive issue, ‘capital opening’ has tended to be offered in official statements as a euphemism for ‘privatisation’. Whatever the qualification, such a move constitutes a major departure from previous governments’ approaches to the development and modernisation of the hydrocarbon sector and thus heralds a radical transformation for Sonatrach.

How far and how fast the government will be able to liberalise is as much a political as an economic and social question. Although the draft law has not yet been submitted to the parliament, preliminary reactions from some quarters within the heterogeneous seven-party coalitional base of the present government voiced concern about the control of a strategic natural resource, fears of losing some element of state sovereignty, and dominance of the national economy by foreign interests. More informed circles have expressed the view that a constructive debate should move beyond the issue of sovereignty that nobody questions, and focus instead on the more challenging agenda of how best to manage the hydrocarbon resources to meet the economic and social needs of the nation. The unions, who have not yet come to terms with the idea of privatisation, seem more preoccupied by potential downsizing (another euphemism for employment cuts) than the longer term prospect of creating more value for Sonatrach. In considering the best way forward, Sonatrach’s management seem to favour a transition where the company would acquire a status of a normal oil and gas company, stripped of government functions and peripheral activities, and able to assert itself in a more competitive environment.

The likely end of Sonatrach’s historic mission as an instrument of state’s ownership, government’s petroleum policy and central control means that the state ownership of the national company is no longer seen as fundamental. This prospect, which is part of a policy drive towards full liberalisation, de-regulation and restructuring of the hydrocarbon industry, tends to conform to a world-wide pattern of ‘less state and more market’. In nationalising the oil and gas industry in the early 1970s Algeria set the trend within the oil-producing countries. Will it set the trend again by de- nationalising it some thirty years after?

By: Robert Mabro

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Energy Policy , Gas , Oil

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