Bloomberg News

China Gains as $17.5 Billion Subsidy Curbs ONGC Buyouts

August 16, 2012

Oil & Natural Gas Corp. (ONGC), India’s biggest state-run explorer, is lagging behind Chinese peers in the race for overseas assets after subsidies to cap fuel prices drained profit by $17.5 billion over the past decade.

“If it weren’t for the subsidies, all that money would’ve gone into overseas acquisitions,” Chairman Sudhir Vasudeva said in an interview. “We’d definitely have been more aggressive.”

ONGC has spent 1.7 trillion rupees ($30 billion) on discounts since India asked state energy explorers to share the cost about a decade ago, draining profit by about 971 billion rupees, Vasudeva said. ONGC pays state refiners that sell fuels such as diesel and kerosene at below-market rates to temper inflation in a nation where almost 800 million people, according to the World Bank, live on less than $2 a day.

The burden is paring ONGC’s ability to challenge Chinese rivals, which made 95 overseas oil and gas purchases worth $86.4 billion in the past decade, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. ONGC, based in New Delhi, has made seven acquisitions valued at about $8 billion in the same period.

“India is very vulnerable to oil because it imports almost 80 percent of its needs, so companies like ONGC need to buy overseas assets,” said Taina Erajuuri, a Helsinki-based money manager at FIM Asset Management, which oversees about $1.2 billion in assets. “China can pay much more because of its huge foreign-exchange reserves, and this has made them more aggressive.”

Indian Oil Corp. (IOCL) reported the nation’s biggest corporate loss this month after the government failed to compensate it for capping fuel prices. The state-run company’s loss widened to 224.5 billion rupees in the three months ended June 30 from 37.2 billion rupees a year earlier.

Videsh Output

ONGC has gained 1.8 percent in the past 12 months, compared with a 5.2 percent increase in the benchmark BSE India Sensitive Index and Brent oil’s 5.6 percent gain in London.

ONGC Videsh Ltd., the overseas unit that can produce about 10 million metric tons of oil equivalent a year, may have doubled its output through acquisitions had the subsidy funds been used for buyouts, Vasudeva said.

State-owned explorers will pay refiners 550 billion rupees as subsidy for the year ended March 31, two people with knowledge of the matter said May 21.

While ONGC, which started in 1955 as a division of the Ministry of Natural Resources, wants to increase international production sixfold by 2030, it has been beaten by overseas rivals in the quest for assets from Latin America to Africa as developing economies in emerging markets seek to secure energy supplies.

Tullow Stake

ONGC failed to win Exxon Mobil Corp. (XOM:US)’s 25 percent stake in an Angolan oil block after making a $2 billion offer, two people with knowledge of the matter said in March last year. Sonangol EP, Angola’s state-run oil producer, bought the stake, the company said on Feb. 24.

A joint offer by ONGC, Indian Oil and Oil India Ltd. to buy a 33 percent stake in London-based Tullow Oil Plc’s Ugandan exploration interests failed as the consortium was outbid by Cnooc Ltd. (883), the Hong Kong-listed unit of China’s biggest offshore oil and gas explorer, a person familiar with the matter said in June 2010.

Earlier this year, ONGC and GAIL India Ltd. said they were participating in the sale process of Cove Energy Plc. (COV) In June, ONGC Videsh said it wouldn’t make an offer for Cove, for which Thailand’s PTT Exploration & Production Pcl (PTTEP) bid 1.2 billion pounds ($1.9 billion).

Syria Sanctions

ONGC is seeking alternatives as oil output from its Sudan and Syria fields is disrupted, and it faced criticism from India’s auditor for its most expensive acquisition.

Output by ONGC Videsh, which has 30 projects overseas, dropped 7.4 percent to 8.75 million tons of oil equivalent in the year ended March, according to a May 21 company statement.

Syria is producing fewer than 200,000 barrels of oil a day, almost half its output before an uprising against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad began in March 2011, Oil Minister Said Hunaidi said on Aug. 3. The U.S. and European Union have imposed sanctions on the country following al-Assad’s crackdown on protesters. More than 21,000 people have died in the unrest, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

“There’s no certainty when production will start again in Syria. We’re in a difficult position there,” Vasudeva said.

South Sudan halted production in January after a pipeline payment dispute with neighboring Sudan. The two nations reached an agreement on Aug. 4. Restarting production may take six months or longer, the International Energy Agency said on Aug. 10.

‘Politically Unstable’

ONGC’s biggest acquisition was the 1.4 billion pound purchase of Russia-focused Imperial Energy Corp. in 2009. ONGC Videsh lost 11.8 billion rupees in the 15 months ended March 2010 because of lower production from its Russian fields operated by Imperial, the Comptroller & Auditor General of India said in March 2011.

The company is close to an agreement to buy its first shale gas asset in the U.S. and plans to spend at least $1 billion on purchases, D.K. Sarraf, managing director of ONGC Videsh, said on March 2. ConocoPhillips (COP:US) and ONGC have signed an agreement to develop shale resources in India and North America.

ONGC, which had more than 200 billion rupees of cash as of March 31, may not get a cheap asset in developed nations like the U.S., FIM Asset’s Erajuuri said.

“They need to look at countries in Africa that may be politically unstable, but will provide good assets for a better price,” she said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Pratish Narayanan in Mumbai at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Alexander Kwiatkowski at

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