Poland’s shale gas boom is threatened even before it gets started after some wells failed and the government sought to increase taxes on profits.
Of 39 wells planned for 2013, just two were drilled by May, Environment Ministry data show. The government plans to require that explorers take a state-run company as a production partner. It has also proposed raising taxes to almost 80 percent of profit, according to Ernst & Young estimates. The measures, announced in October, haven’t become law.
“What’s been done here is what Poles call dividing up the bear hide before you’ve shot the bear,” said Tom Maj, who led the Polish operations of Talisman Energy Inc., the Canadian explorer that pulled out of Poland earlier this month. “This has been hugely damaging to the shale gas project as evidenced by the negligible number of wells of the past few months.”
Prospectors had come from the U.S. and Canada to drill what was billed as Europe’s richest shale-gas deposits. The dream for Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s government was to find domestic natural gas through an estimated $4.5 billion in exploration projects undertaken by explorers such as Chevron Corp. and Canada’s Nexen Inc. At stake is a strategic goal to cut dependency on imports from OAO Gazprom, the Russian supplier of about two-thirds of the fuel to Poland.
While many explorers including Chevron remain and say they expect their projects to run for years, the disappointment of some of the earliest entrants has caused at least three to pack their bags.
Exxon Mobil Corp. pulled out of the country in June after its first wells produced disappointing results. Talisman left Poland following a change in its strategy. Marathon Oil Corp. said May 7 it was pulling out and looking for options to dispose of its 11 licenses after its search failed to produce commercial results. Nexen, bought by China’s Cnooc Ltd., owns minority stakes in 10 of Marathon’s licenses.
The exit by Talisman and Marathon is not a setback for exploration as work on their licenses will continue, Deputy Environment Minister Piotr Wozniak said in Warsaw on May 8.
The nation granted more than 100 licenses to about two dozen drillers including Exxon and Chevron that proposed at least 300 exploration wells that may cost as much as $4.5 billion. In 2011, the U.S. Energy Information Administration ranked Poland as Europe’s biggest holder of technically recoverable shale gas reserves, with 187 trillion cubic feet, more than one-fifth of the agency’s estimate for the U.S.
At the current pace of drilling, decades may pass before the 300 wells will be completed and indicate whether the country can possibly be self-sufficient.
“Who’s going to come and invest billions of dollars to monetize this gas if the government is talking about taking huge profit margins away from the companies?” said John Buggenhagen, who resigned yesterday as exploration director in Poland for San Leon Energy Plc. Buggenhagen, who spoke in an interview in Warsaw on May 8, yesterday reiterated his remarks and said his departure was for “personal” reasons.
According to Maj, the head of Talisman’s local operations since September 2010, there were never grounds for wild optimism or profound pessimism.
“Exploration in a new basin is always an extremely risky and expensive venture,” said Maj, who closed the company’s Warsaw office for good on May 10. “Nevertheless, the geological data gave some ground for optimism. Furthermore, the surrounding environment was attractive: relatively high gas prices in Europe, access to markets and infrastructure and, of course, a sense that the project had strong domestic support for geopolitical reasons.”
As the geology turned out more complex than anticipated, requiring more patience and money to be understood, the industry was expecting encouragement from the government. Instead, matters headed in the opposite direction, Maj said.
“We’ve got caught up in a strange discussion around regulation, taxation and state participation, all of which seem to bear little relation to the realities of where we are in the investment cycle or the risk-reward balance,” Maj said in an interview in Warsaw.
Exploration on a majority of licensed acreage is set to continue, including that by major companies Chevron and France’s Total SA. Jay Johnson, president of Chevron’s Europe, Eurasia and Middle East exploration and production unit, told analysts on March 12 that the company will drill more wells in Polish shale this year.
“Chevron remains committed to our current exploration program in Poland,” Grazyna Bukowska, a spokeswoman for Chevron’s Polish subsidiary, said in an e-mail yesterday.
Smaller investors that said they are holding to plans to search for gas include San Leon, 3Legs Resources Plc and Canada’s BNK Petroleum Inc. Polish government-controlled PKN Orlen SA and Polskie Gornictwo Naftowe i Gazownictwo SA each plan to drill several wells this year.
“Unless geology crosses out this project, we will continue exploration,” Wieslaw Prugar, chief executive officer of PKN Orlen unit Orlen Upstream, told an industry panel on May 14.
PKN Orlen started drilling its seventh exploratory well, it said in an e-mailed statement today. It will be its third well on the Lubartow license in the Lublin area in southeastern Poland. In 2013, the company plans to hydraulically fracture two earlier completed horizontal wells to test gas flows.
“Results of drilling on the Lubartow license are encouraging us to continue exploration in the area,” Prugar said in the statement.
3Legs, owner of stakes in eight licenses, plans to retest a horizontal well in Poland and drill two or three new vertical wells later this year. ConocoPhillips, a Houston-based explorer, owns 70 percent in three western Baltic Basin concessions of 3Legs.
“Of course it’s disappointing to see companies like Talisman and Marathon leaving but they will have their reasons for leaving and those have nothing to do with the 3Legs interests in the Baltic,” Chief Executive Officer Kamlesh Parmar said in a May 14 interview. “We believe in our acreage.”
Exxon pulled out of the eastern European nation after Poland scaled down the estimates of deposits to 27 trillion cubic feet, enough to cover 50 years of consumption, and some exploration wells disappointed.
In October, the government said it would increase taxation on oil and gas output including prospective production from the unconventional deposits, promising to cap its take at 40 percent of the profit. Under a separate government draft, a state-run company will become a shareholder in production ventures, further increasing the government’s take.
Mateusz Pociask, a partner at Ernst & Young Polska in Warsaw, estimated the current total tax rate at 40 percent, and said the proposal would about double it.
The marginal tax rate for oil and gas companies is 78 percent in Norway, Europe’s biggest natural gas producer, according to the nation’s Petroleum Tax Act.
“I’d be cautious in comparing Poland to Norway given the different nature of output and regulations here and there,” Pociask said yesterday by phone .
As exploration slowed, the Environment Ministry promised in February that it would simplify permitting rules, including those that require investors to seek new permits any time they want to drill deeper or in a different direction than originally planned. The relevant regulations have been drafted but won’t come into force until early 2014, Environment Minister Marcin Korolec said in a May 13 interview.
The approvals process is hindering drilling in Poland, Buggenhagen said. The company had a partnership with Talisman and bought its interest in three licenses after the Canadian company left the country.
For 3Legs’ Parmar, the biggest concern is that drafted regulations may leave explorers empty-handed even if they discover gas.
“If companies invest in exploration and then find that when it comes to exploitation rights, these go up for tender, that can’t be fair,” he said.