Tom Bergin and Shadia Nasralla London

Gabon is seeking to squeeze more money out of foreign oil companies operating in the country, executives say, potentially damping enthusiasm for a long-awaited deep-water licensing round due next year.

The move mirrors similar steps by resource-rich nations around the world over the past decade, as countries including Kazakhstan and Venezuela have clawed back projects or tightened the terms for international companies as energy prices soared.

Oil accounts for about half of Gabon’s economy but output has fallen by a third since peaking at 370 000 barrels a day in 1997. However, the country’s known reserves are put at about 3.7 billion barrels, giving it several decades yet of hydrocarbon wealth.

The west African country’s government had launched audits of oil producers that had led to big claims for back taxes and was demanding tougher terms for, and equity stakes in, new contracts, said executives, who declined to be named for fear of jeopardising their interests in the country.

“I think it is really driven by the desire to get a better deal for the state,” an oil executive said.

The government declined to respond to questions about whether it had launched a concerted drive to extract more money from oil companies, but the country’s oil and energy minister confirmed some firms were being audited.

“We got the opportunity to do some audits to see if a contract is well run and… we noticed a lot of exceptions,” Etienne Ngoubou said.

“You engage in some negotiations with the operation company to check each exception and to agree if you have some tax [due],” he added.

Three executives said that Addax Petroleum, a unit of China’s Sinopec, had been threatened with the loss of an oilfield in a dispute over terms.

Ngoubou acknowledged the dispute but said the disagreement was over environmental problems at the field, which one executive identified as the Obangue onshore field.

Sinopec was not available for comment. Sinopec took control of the field through the purchase of Addax in 2009 in what was then China’s largest overseas oil acquisition.

Other companies affected by the government’s moves include Canadian Natural Resources and French groups Maurel & Prom and unlisted Perenco. In addition to auditing existing contracts, the government is demanding tougher fiscal terms to extend contracts that are close to expiring.

Perenco had to agree to tougher terms on the renewal of one of its licences, industry executives said. – Reuters