High oil prices, resource nationalism
prompt scramble for African reserves

By Daniel Flynn

DAKAR, Jan 25 (Reuters) - High oil prices and the onslaught of resource nationalism from Russia to South America have sent Western majors delving ever deeper into the waters of the Gulf of Guinea, triggering a new scramble for Africa.

Unlike more established oil-producing regions, the Gulf of Guinea offers easy access and attractive terms for Western oil companies, like Royal Dutch Shell <RDSa.L> and Exxon Mobil Corp <XOM.N>, desperate to replenish their flagging reserves.

A number of West African countries, from established producers Nigeria and Angola to newcomers like Liberia, will tender acreage this year. But, with Asian giants China and India jockeying for resources, a battle is under way.

"Africa, and particularly the Gulf of Guinea, is one of the hottest destinations in the world today for the oil industry," said industry expert John Ghazvinian. "It's the final frontier in terms of conventional sources of oil."

According to consultants PFC Energy, only 7 percent of the world's oil and gas reserves are in countries that allow majors free rein. Two-thirds are in the hands of powerful state companies such as Saudi Aramco and Venezuela's PDVSA.

West Africa holds much less than a tenth of the world's proven oil reserves, compared to two-thirds in the Middle East, but for foreign companies, it is an oasis of opportunities.

Royal Dutch Shell remains the leading producer in Nigeria, despite a simmering uprising in the Niger Delta. In Equatorial Guinea, it is Exxon Mobil; in Gabon, it is France's Total <TOTF.PA> and in Angola, Chevron <CVX.N>.

As companies scour the waters of the Gulf for new finds, utilisation of drilling rigs in the area is running at 98 percent of capacity versus around 75 percent in the Gulf of Mexico and South America, according to ODS-Petrodata Group.

Discovery rates are high. Since 2000, a third of the world's oil finds have been in Africa, most in the Gulf of Guinea. Ghana struck oil last year and aims to start production by 2009, while tiny Sao Tome hopes to join the club of West African producers.

But there are drawbacks.

Except for Nigeria, most West African oil is offshore and expensive to extract. With fears of a U.S. recession, which has hit oil prices and prompted the International Energy Agency to cut its 2008 demand forecast, analysts are raising questions.

"What if there is a U.S. recession and oil prices collapse?" asked Sebastian Spio-Garbrah, West Africa analyst at Eurasia Group. "Would state companies want more control? Would majors still be willing to invest in costly offshore production?"

China, India ‘Learning fast’

Even if prices tumble, interest in West Africa is likely to be sustained by its strategic location between the U.S. and Asian markets, and the low sulphur content of its oil which makes it less corrosive to refine and more environment-friendly.

But with talk of "peak oil" -- a plateau in world production -- gaining currency among even seasoned oil executives, any prolonged decline in petroleum prices seems unlikely.

Ghazvinian, author of "Untapped: The Scramble for Africa's Oil", predicts some $50 billion will be invested over three years, with U.S. companies accounting for a third of that.

West Africa already provides 17 percent of U.S. oil imports. With Washington keen to ease its reliance on the volatile Middle East, the National Intelligence Council, a CIA think-tank, forecasts this will rise to 25 percent by 2015.

Washington has already raised its military profile in the Gulf, launching a permanent naval presence and seeking a site for its new African command. But money may talk more than military might.

Thirsty for oil to feed their booming economies, China and India are pouring billions of dollars into acreage in Nigeria, Angola and Equatorial Guinea, and they are reaping the benefits.

Angola has become the largest supplier of oil to China, shipping a record 900,000 barrels a day in December. China's CNOOC expects first oil this year from Nigeria's giant deepwater Akpo field, after it paid $2 billion for a stake in 2006.

"Most production is still in the hands of the majors," said Nicholas Shaxson, author of "Poisoned Wells: The Dirty Politics of African Oil."

"Chinese and Indian companies don't have the expertise to compete with Shell and Exxon Mobil, but they're learning fast."

Russia’s long shadow

Russian resource nationalism casts a long shadow in West Africa. State monopoly Gazprom <GAZP.MM> supplies Europe with a quarter of its gas but European firms have grown wary of Moscow and are seeking sources of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG).

"The Europeans want to diversify away from Russian supply," said independent oil analyst Anthony Goldman. "The LNG story is going to be even bigger than the oil story in West Africa."

In Equatorial Guinea and Angola, multi-billion-dollar projects are under way to build or expand existing LNG plants. Nigeria aims to become the world's third-largest supplier of LNG by 2010, and has a string of huge projects in development.

Nigerian President Umaru Yar'Adua, meanwhile, has ordered a shake-up of the cumbersome and opaque state oil company, NNPC.

"So far, Nigeria and Angola are the only countries remotely moving towards developing their own national champions," said Ghazvinian. "But strong demand for oil is bolstering national assertiveness." (Editing by James