Eni's credentials boosted by giant gas find in Egypt

MILAN (Reuters) - Eni’s “supergiant” gas find off the coast of Egypt bolsters its top-flight exploration credentials and gives the Italian energy group access to easy reserves that fit its strategy of seeking growth without sacrificing dividends.

A petrol station of Italy's energy group ENI is seen in downtown Rome, February 23, 2011. REUTERS/Remo Casilli

Eni said on Sunday that its discovery ranked as the largest known gas field in the Mediterranean, covering an area of about 100 square kilometers (39 square miles) and containing a potential 30 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of gas.

Shares in the company rose as much as 4 percent on Monday. By 1148 GMT the stock was up 2.2 percent at 14.72 euros.

Eni, already Africa’s biggest oil and gas explorer, was the first oil major to cut its dividend after a plunge in global oil prices. It is looking to reduce its stake in its Mozambique gas discovery and does not rule out doing the same for its latest find, dubbed Zohr.

“It’s an open door to give value and solidity to Eni’s balance sheet,” CEO Claudio Descalzi said of a potential Zohr stake sale in an interview published on Monday by Italian newspaper La Repubblica.

“But it will not be a necessary outcome. There is much less to spend than in Mozambique and the new gas is aimed at the local domestic market, with prices disconnected from those of oil, which today are at six-year lows.”

In July Egypt raised the price it pays Eni for the natural gas it produces, part of its initiative to encourage investment in the energy-hungry country.

The company’s initial investment in Zohr will be about $3.5 billion, an Egypt official said, though the country’s state gas company said that the total could stretch to twice that figure.

“With the full completion of development for the field, investments will (reach) $7 billion,” the head of EGAS, Khaled Abdel Badie, told Reuters on Monday.


The good quality of gas discovered at Zohr and the field’s proximity to the shore and existing pipeline infrastructure makes it relatively easy and cheap to develop, especially compared with the more remote discoveries off Mozambique, which had to be developed from scratch.

“The news in Egypt is supportive of our view that Eni is the best self-help story among the large-cap integrated oils and continues to keep momentum with a strong growth story,” Bank of America Merrill Lynch analysts said, adding that the field was potentially worth up to $5 billion to Eni.

The company is still looking to sell down stakes in top acreage such as Mozambique and Congo to help to fund upstream development and dividends, and its CEO reaffirmed that the current dividend was a floor after its recent cut. “We will not go below,” he said in comments aired on Class CNBC.

Santander analyst Jason Kenney said that Eni is likely to look at selling a 30-40 percent stake in Zohr within three to four years.

Yet disposals could be challenging in an environment of low oil prices, with a shrinking pool of potential buyers and several competitors also engaging in asset sales to shore up balance sheets, analysts said.

The new African find could also help to meet Egypt’s gas needs for decades and pose a challenge to other projects in Egypt, Israel and Cyprus. Falling production and rising gas demand has forced Egypt to become a net importer in recent years.

Key Israeli energy stocks Delek Group, Delek Drilling, Avner Oil, Ratio and Isramco Negev lost 4.5 billion shekels ($1.14 billion) off their combined market capitalization on Monday.

Eni has a top class geophysical team backing its E&P work, said Davide Tabarelli, head of energy think-tank Nomisma Energia. “We thought there was nothing like this in the Mediterranean ... it will prompt a rethink,” he said.

Additional reporting by Oleg Vukmanovic in Milan, Tova Cohen in Tel Aviv; Editing by Jason Neely and David Goodman