* Acting president says it is a national interest priority
* Oil Minister sees bill passed before elections
* State oil firm to be turned into profit-driven business
ABUJA, Feb 22 (Reuters) - Nigeria’s acting President Goodluck Jonathan said on Monday he was committed to overhauling Africa’s biggest oil and gas industry so that it better serves the country’s national interest.
Lawmakers have been working for years to finalise the far-reaching Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB), which would rewrite Nigeria's decades-old relationship with partners including Royal Dutch Shell RDSa.L, Exxon Mobil XOM.N and Chevron CVX.N.
Investors and analysts had been concerned that the legislation, which has been on the drawing board in one form or another for more than a decade, could be further delayed by the absence of President Umaru Yar’Adua, who has been in hospital in Saudi Arabia with a heart condition for three months.
But Jonathan, who assumed full executive powers two weeks ago, said ensuring the bill passed quickly was one of his top priorities.
“I want to reassure Nigerians and our foreign partners of our unwavering commitment to pursuing the reform in this sector with an eye on our national interest primarily and also in meeting the market demand for energy security,” Jonathan said at the opening of an industry conference in Abuja.
Oil Minister Rilwanu Lukman said he was hopeful the legislation would pass “very soon.” Asked if that meant before the country’s next presidential elections, he told Reuters: “I should certainly hope so. The election is months away.”
The uncertainty over Yar’Adua’s health and who will succeed him at the next elections has risked bringing government decision making to a halt, with ministers and parliamentarians waiting to see how the succession race shapes up.
The polls are currently due to be held in April 2011, but electoral reforms could bring them forward to as early as November, giving Jonathan and the government an even shorter period of time to ensure legislation is passed.
The PIB aims to break state-run oil firm NNPC, long hampered by funding shortfalls, into profit-driven units able to tap international capital markets, and it is also touted by government as a solution to chronic domestic power shortages.
It could lead to some of the biggest financing deals ever seen in Africa.
But foreign oil companies have warned the bill could put billions of dollars of investment at risk if it also imposes higher taxes and royalties on Nigeria’s existing oil partners, including for some deep offshore production contracts.
“Our determination to transform NNPC into a profit-oriented business concern is irreversible. The new Nigerian National Petroleum Company Limited (NNPC) will not get grants from government,” Jonathan said.
“It will be operated as a business concern that is conscious of its mission, able to borrow from the capital market, and paying dividends to its shareholders. The new NNPC will be required to pay to the government royalties and taxes just like any other company,” he said.
Some foreign oil firms have said the legislation goes too far and makes investment in Africa’s most populous nation uneconomical. They are particularly concerned about the possibility of changes to offshore production agreements.
Years of violence in the onshore fields of the Niger Delta have made Nigeria’s offshore potential a more attractive proposition for foreign firms such as Shell and Exxon.
Many offshore fields were awarded in the 1990s under production sharing contracts offering royalty rates as low as zero percent to attract foreign investment.
But Nigeria says those pioneering days are over.
"Oil must be an agent for good and development not violence, war and impoverishment. Our goal is to ensure that the benefits of petroleum be enjoyed and seen to be enjoyed by all Nigerians," Jonathan said. (For more Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: af.reuters.com/) (Additional reporting by Felix Onuah and Camillus Eboh; Writing by Nick Tattersall; editing by Jim Marshall)
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