Wednesday, May 07, 2014

‘INA’ grumpy mood: MOL & Croatia’s government

The Oilholic finds himself in a jovial mood in sunny Zagreb. However, Hungarian oil company MOL and the Croatian Government are being rather grumpy with each other these days. The reason behind it all is the management of INA or Industrija Nafte, Croatia's national oil company in which the government holds around a 45% stake and MOL a slightly higher 47% stake.

INA has its origins in state-ownership, followed by privatisation; a trend which is not uncommon in this part of the world. It has an E&P arm with ongoing activity closer to home in the Adriatic Sea and Pannonian Basin, and abroad in Egypt and Angola. It also had gas exploration projects in Syria, brought to an abrupt halt in wake of the country's civil war.

INA's R&M operations include both of the Croatia's strategic refining assets – namely Rijeka Refinery (capacity 90,000 bpd) and Sisak Refinery (60,000 bpd) and retail forecourts. According to local analysts and whatever one can gather from media outlets, tension between MOL and Zagreb has been simmering since 2011.

Strain is evident and both parties are so at each other that it is out in the open. A scribe tells yours truly that MOL feels the Croatian Ministry of Economics is riddled with red tape and has conjured up a bad regulatory framework for the sector in general, which is hurting INA by default.

However, Minister Ivan Vrdoljak says it is MOL that has "failed" to deliver on its promise of incremental strategic investment. Another bone of contention is INA's loss-incurring gas trading arm which the government was supposed to have taken over but hasn't so far.

As if that was not enough, a Croatian court found former Prime Minister Ivo Sanader guilty of allegedly taking a bribe from MOL in 2008 for permitting it to gain market dominance. Both Sanader and MOL deny the charge. The country's Supreme Court is currently considering Sanader's appeal against his 10-year sentence, passed by the lower court while he remains behind bars on a multitude of charges.

Meanwhile, an informed source says trust between MOL and the Croatian government "is right out of the window". Sounds much better when locals say so in Croatian, but sadly the Oilholic cant replicate the sound-bite not being able speak any. Those in the outside world might be forgiven for wondering what the fuss is about and its all to do with upstream operations rather than the country's two refineries. INA operates these out of necessity to meet domestic distillate demand above than anything else.

For it, the Pannonian basin holds very good potential. According to the US Geological Survey, the area could have something in the region of 350 million barrels of oil equivalent (boe) by conservative estimates. The figure could rise to lower four digits if overtly optimistic regional projections are followed, so yours truly won't follow them.

Everyone from the Romanians to the Austrians want in, and Croats and Hungarians – should they stop their squabbling – could jointly work on their share too in this hydrocarbon hungry world. Additionally, the north Adriatic Sea offshore prospection is currently yielding INA (and its Italian partner Eni) 15.8 million boe per day.

The latest round of talks aimed at resolving the dispute have been going on since last September, with very little to show for. The next round of talks is scheduled for the end of the month. Here's hoping 'crude' sense prevails or their partnership mementos from 2003 might just end up in the City's Museum of Broken Relationships (see left). In the interim, please take any quips, claims and figures touted by either party with a pinch of salt!

Away from it all, one footnote to boot before yours truly enjoys some cultural pursuits and beverages here – ICE's latest commitment of traders report for the week ending April 29 noted that bets on a rising Brent price have risen to their highest in eight months as money managers, including hedge funds, increased their net long position in Brent crude by 0.3% to 204,488, marking a fourth successive week of increases.

Traders in the category decreased their long positions by 2,464, but the number of short positions also fell, by 3,039 to 47,800, the lowest level since the end of August. That's all from Zagreb folks! Keep reading, keep it 'crude'!

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© Gaurav Sharma 2014. Photo 1: St. Mark’s Church as seen from Lotrščak Tower, Zagreb, Croatia. Photo 2: The Museum of Broken Relationships, Zagreb, Croatia © Gaurav Sharma, May 2014.

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