Nigerian oil minister returns, doubters circle

Thu Jul 7, 2011 7:51am EDT

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* Stalled oil reforms hold key to unlocking investment

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* Nigeria has vast latent petroleum potential

By Joe Brock

ABUJA, July 7 (Reuters) - Nigeria's returning oil minister may have the support of the president but with Africa's largest energy industry stalling she will need to show swift progress to prove her critics wrong and attract much-needed investment.

President Goodluck Jonathan showed his faith in Deziani Alison-Madueke, Nigeria's first female oil minister by re-appointing her on Saturday after she spent less than a year in his cabinet prior to April's elections.

She has had a mixed reception elsewhere.

Nigeria's vocal press criticised her before her return to cabinet about a lack of transparency on oil deals and an action group is seeking an injunction against her re-appointment because it says she didn't complete national service.

Foreign oil companies have been critical of her, partly because she repeatedly said a wide-ranging energy reform bill was about to pass into law but it never did.

"Her challenge now will be to build an effective working relationship with some of the local and international oil companies that made it clear they hoped she would be replaced," said Antony Goldman, Nigeria expert and head of PM Consulting.

"But she had the steadfast support of the presidency, without which no minister can survive," he added.

In her favour is an oil industry bursting with potential. Crude oil production has recovered to over 2 million barrels per day (bpd) and remained there for over a year while the world's eighth largest natural gas reserves are largely untapped.

The stalling of oil reforms is shackling progress in Nigeria's energy sector because foreign investors don't want to put money into an industry without a clear tax framework and an undefined role for a state-oil company with a chequered history.

During her screening by Nigeria's Senate last week, Alison-Madueke hinted the long-delayed Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) may need more work, potentially prolonging uncertainty which has already cost billions of dollars in lost investment.

One of Alison-Madueke's first tasks will be to decide whether to approve four onshore oil block sale deals Royal Dutch Shell (RDSa.L) has agreed with foreign and local firms.

DIVESTMENT

It is unusual for oil companies to sell producing assets and the move by Nigeria's oldest foreign oil partner demonstrates how the biggest players see the country's main future production potential coming from deep offshore rather than onshore.

But a varied oil producer network involving more local players could benefit the long-term development of Nigeria's oil basin and the passage of these deals would give confidence to investors looking to secure deals in other oil blocks.

While Nigeria's upstream business has made little progress since the PIB was first introduced as a concept four years ago, the downstream sector remains insufficient to support the fuel needs of Africa's most populous nation.

Alison-Madueke has said refineries are undergoing maintenance that will boost capacity while agreements with a Chinese firm to build three more facilities have been signed. But similar deals in the past have failed to materialise.

Despite its high crude production Nigeria imports most of its oil products while most of the country's 150 million residents live without power, stunting the development of sub-Saharan Africa's second-largest economy.

Improved power generation would aid economic development in the wetlands swamps of the Niger Delta which will be key to maintaining what has arguably been the most successful development in Nigeria's oil industry in the last five years.

An amnesty for oil militants in 2009 halted attacks on oil facilities, which cut out more than a third of Nigeria's oil production at their height three years earlier.

Former militants are paid stipends and are undergoing training but without long-term jobs, youths disillusioned with the lack of opportunities could return to the lucrative illegal trade of oil bunkering and pipeline sabotage.

Standing in the way of Alison-Madueke's goals are long-term vested interests in petroleum product importation, a state-oil firm not fit for purpose and squabbling stakeholders. The priority must be to push through some type of reforms.

"The oil minister must be aware that much further delay in the passing of the bill will impact perceptions of her ability to fill the role effectively," said Elizabeth Donnelly, Africa manager at London-based think tank Chatham House. (Editing by Nick Tattersall and James Jukwey)

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