MILAN (Reuters) - Eni, the biggest foreign oil producer in Libya before the civil war, could lose assets or opportunities in the long run if Italy’s hesitant support for the rebel government early in the conflict leads to a backlash.
The rebels, who are close to winning a six-month war against Muammar Gaddafi, have already said firms from Russia and China could fall out of favor for the lack of support for the uprising, thus opening the doors to companies from Britain, France and the United States to gain more assets.
“In the short-to-mid term I see no risk for Eni. Any new government will need cash and that means getting production onstream fast. To do that they’ll need Eni,” said Stefano Casertano, senior fellow at German think-tank BIGS-Potsdam.org.
“We’ll see further on if there’s a diplomatic-type attack for access to what Eni controls,” he added.
While Italy hesitated, Britain, France and the U.S. led the early drive for intervention in Libya to protect the rebels.
Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi, long Gaddafi’s closest European ally, was silent in the initial days of the uprising in February, and his government’s calls for Gaddafi to step down were much more subdued than those of European peers.
Berlusconi has also said he was against NATO intervention in Libya but was forced to go along with it. His main coalition partner, the Northern League, has long opposed intervention.
In March, Eni Chief Executive Paolo Scaroni called on Europe to abandon sanctions against Libya in an attempt to rebuild bridges when Gaddafi had seemed to be regaining control of the country.
A diplomatic source in Rome told Reuters last month Italy’s initially subdued condemnation of Gaddafi followed by an abrupt switch in April to fully back the rebels had damaged its credibility and could prove costly in the long run.
Italy has recently moved fast to seize back the initiative. Berlusconi said he will meet Libyan rebel leader Mahmoud Jibril, and Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said Eni staff were in Libya to try to restart oil facilities, adding, “It is clear Eni will play a No. 1 role in the future.”
France’s Total is an active player in Libya. Britain’s BP has assets there but no production, as does Royal Dutch Shell. U.S. groups Marathon Oil Corp and ConocoPhillips are also active.
Gaddafi’s fall could give new players such as Qatar’s national oil company and trading house Vitol opportunities. Qatar was quick to establish links with Libyan rebels and was the first Arab country to give planes to police no-fly zones.
“There is obviously some benefit to the countries that helped the Libyans in the crisis, but that advantage can go quite quickly. So British companies and French companies would want to get there as quickly as possible,” Gavin De Salis, chairman of oil services firm OPS International, told Reuters Insider.
Eni, in Libya since the 1950s, produced about 270,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day in 2010. Its oil production contracts are in force to 2042 and gas contracts to 2047.
“Eni getting production restarted fast would win it good will with any new government in Libya,” said Justin Jacobs, oil and gas analyst at Business Monitor International. Eni has said that if stability returns, it would take one year to restart oil production and two to three months for gas.
On Tuesday the Libyan rebel envoy to Italy said he expected Italian contracts to be respected in a post-Gaddafi era.
Russia and China opposed tough sanctions on Gaddafi, and some say energy companies there could feel a backlash.
“We don’t have a problem with Western countries like Italians, French and UK companies. But we may have some political issues with Russia, China and Brazil,” said Abdeljalil Mayouf, information head at Libyan rebel oil firm AGOCO.
Russian companies, including oil firms Gazprom Neft and Tatneft, had projects worth billions of dollars in Libya before the conflict started. China, which took 3 percent of its imported crude from Libya last year, had about 75 companies operating there.
“The Chinese and Russians were reticent to step in and play an active pro-rebel role. Certainly European and U.S. companies stand to benefit from that,” said Jacobs.
Before the war, Gazprom Neft agreed to buy a stake from Eni in Libya’s Elephant field, but that has been put on hold. Eni is a strategic partner of Gazprom.
Going forward, much will depend on what a future rebel government will look like and where its sympathies lie.
“The big question is who the rebels are. I don’t think we’ve seen the real leadership yet, which will probably be made up of new figures,” said Karim Mezran, professor for Middle East Studies at Johns Hopkins SAIS in Bologna.
“And another big issue is unfreezing Libyan assets. How the European countries handle that one could give them leverage for their own oil companies.”
Libyan investors own some 7.5 percent of Italy’s biggest bank, UniCredit, around 1 percent of Eni and some 2 percent of aerospace and defense group Finmeccanica
Additional reporting by Deepa Babington in Rome, editing by Jane Baird