ASTANA U.S. oil major ConocoPhillips (COP.N) is ready to exit the consortium developing Kazakhstan's Kashagan oil field, Kazakh officials said, giving the state first option on increasing ownership of the biggest oil find since the 1960s.
A more assertive Kazakhstan, seeking greater returns on the large energy projects that will drive central Asia's biggest economy over the next decade, has sought to revise deals struck with foreign energy companies in the lean post-Soviet years.
Asked on Tuesday whether ConocoPhillips would sell its stake in the consortium, Kazakh Oil and Gas Minister Sauat Mynbayev told reporters: "They have informed that they have the intention of selling."
ConocoPhillips would not confirm its plans for the Kashagan stake. "Unless formally announced by our company, ConocoPhillips does not comment on ongoing business development or commercial activities," spokesman Daren Beaudo said in an email.
The Houston-based company, however, has been conducting a disposal program to reduce its non-core overseas assets. It has already exceeded its target of asset sales worth $20 billion by the end of 2012, including the sale of its stake in LUKOIL (LKOH.MM), Russia's second-biggest oil producer. Proceeds from the disposals are to be used for debt reduction, dividend payments and exploration.
Kazakhstan, home to 3 percent of the world's recoverable oil reserves, has moved to exert greater management control and secure bigger revenues from foreign-owned oil and gas developments.
Previous reshuffles of North Caspian Operating Company (NCOC), the consortium developing Kashagan, have seen state company KazMunaiGas muscle in, prompting Western partners to seek assurances that they will be able to develop the offshore field's more lucrative second phase.
KazMunaiGas first entered the Kashagan consortium as a shareholder in 2005 and later doubled its stake to 16.81 percent. Identical stakes are held by Exxon Mobil (XOM.N), Royal Dutch Shell (RDSa.L), Italy's Eni (ENI.MI) and French company Total (TOTF.PA). Japan's Inpex (1605.T) owns 7.56 percent.
The Kazakh state company would have first option on buying the 8.4 percent stake owned by ConocoPhillips, and Chief Executive Lyazzat Kiinov said it was "displaying interest" in buying the stake.
Daniyar Berlibayev, Kiinov's deputy at KazMunaiGas, also indicated that ConocoPhillips planned to sell its stake. Whether or not KazMuaniGas would acquire the share would depend on the price, he said.
"They will exit the project, but nobody has come to us with an offer," Berlibayev told Reuters. "We, as the national company, wouldn't refuse the idea of increasing our share. How we might finance this is another question."
Exxon Mobil, the world's biggest non-state oil company, would be a possible buyer of the stake if KazMuaniGas decided not to pursue its interest in the ConocoPhillips stake. Exxon Mobil senior vice-president Mark Albers declined to comment when asked about his company's plans for Kashagan.
Kazakhstan, the world's ninth-largest country by area but with a population of only 17 million, expects Kashagan to be one of three main drivers of its plans to raise oil output by 60 percent by the end of the decade.
Mynbayev said that Kazakhstan planned to raise output to 130 million metric tonnes (143.3 million tons) by 2020, from 81 million tonnes this year, through expansion at Kashagan, the Chevron-led (CVX.N) Tengiz field and the Karachaganak oil and gas condensate field
Kashagan's first phase, which has been delayed by rising costs and technical complications, is likely to pump its first oil by the end of March 2013, the minister said.
The first phase of production is expected to yield between 370,000 and 450,000 barrels per day (bpd). A second phase, yet to be agreed with the government, could raise output to 1 million bpd.
With output set to begin, consortium members are lobbying for assurances that they will be able to recoup the tens of billions of dollars already invested before the expiry of their 40-year production-sharing agreement, signed in 1997.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has ruled Kazakhstan throughout its two decades of independence, has already talked to ENI Chief Executive Paolo Scaroni to discuss "cooperation in the oil and gas sector", including Kashagan, his website said.
(Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by David Goodman)