Exxon Mobil confirms may exit Romanian offshore gas project

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - U.S. energy major Exxon Mobil confirmed late on Tuesday it is weighing an exit from a long-stalled Romanian natural gas venture and has begun providing information to potential buyers.

FILE PHOTO: An Exxon sign is seen at a gas station in the Chicago suburb of Norridge, Illinois, U.S., October 27, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Young/File Photo

The company holds a 50% stake in the Neptun Deep offshore project located in the Black Sea with Romanian OMV Petrom, majority-controlled by Austria’s OMV, but the venture has been fraught with delays over the tax regime and regulations.

No buyer has been identified and no agreements reached with outside groups, Exxon spokesman Todd Spitler said.

While entertaining talks over its holdings, “we plan to continue to perform our role as operator in advancing the project, including continuing to pursue permits,” Spitler said.

Reports of Exxon’s exit plans first emerged last year, but neither the company nor the Romanian government would officially confirm them.

Earlier this week, Romanian Prime Minister Ludovic Orban said state gas producer Romgaz would be interested in joining a consortium alongside OMV Petrom and a third company to develop Neptun Deep. He also said Russia’s Lukoil had requested information about the sale.

“Should Exxon decide to sell, we want a serious partner, one that comes from the region of our partnerships, the European Union, NATO,” Orban told private television station Digi24.

“We can’t decide for Exxon to whom it will sell its participation, but there are other offers.”

A sale of Exxon’s stake, which requires Romanian government approval, would help edge the oil producer toward its goal of raising $15 billion in proceeds from asset sales by 2021.

In November, people familiar with the matter estimated Exxon’s stake in Neptun Deep could be worth about $250 million.

The company has stepped up a divestment campaign to offset heavy spending in U.S. shale, refining and chemicals, and deep water oil exploration in Guyana and Brazil. Exxon recently sold Norwegian assets to Var Energi AS, a majority owned unit of Italy’s ENI SpA. That sale is expected to provide up to $3.6 billion in cash during the latest quarter.

Several gas producers have spent about a decade and billions of dollars preparing to tap Romania’s Black Sea gas, but they were blindsided by price caps, taxes and export restrictions pushed forward by the previous Social Democrat government.

Orban’s Liberal minority cabinet is moving to undo some of the measures.

Reporting by Gary McWilliams and Luiza Ilie; editing by Christian Schmollinger