(EnergyAsia, February 25 2015, Wednesday) — Faced with the prospect of a prolonged oil price collapse, Malaysia’s state energy firm Petronas Berhad will demand its incoming chief executive and president to immediately cut costs and make nerve-wracking decisions on the fate of several multi-billion-dollar projects.
With oil prices halved since mid-2014 and possibly headed lower, Malaysia’s Prime Minister earlier this month promoted chief operating officer Wan Zulkilfee Wan Arrifin, 54, to the top job on a three-year term from April 1. He replaces the combative Shamsul Abbas who leaves behind a stalled attempt to reform the Petronas bureaucracy, some failed investments, and partially-launched massive oil and gas projects that will weigh heavily on its long-term finances.
Mr Shamsul spectacularly fell out with his boss, Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak, when he openly criticised the government for supporting Malaysia’s burdensome energy subsidies at the World Gas Congress conference in Kuala Lumpur in June 2012. He also offended right-wing Malay groups for championing meritocracy in promoting non-Malays in the company and for trying to reduce the award of contracts to politically-connected businesses.
Petronas is expected to push ahead with Mr Shamsul’s plan to invest US$16-billion in a refinery-petrochemical complex and another US$11 billion in support facilities and infrastructure to develop Malaysia’s southern Johor state into a regional energy hub. Despite their increasingly uncertain economics, the proposed investments have popular political backing as they benefit the domestic economy
But the new boss may have to curb the company’s badly-executed expansion into the Americas following costly failed ventures into Venezuela and Brazil.
Mr Zulkilfee faces his — and Petronas’s — biggest call in Canada where he must decide soon if the company will follow through on Mr Shamsul’s plan to invest a total of C$36 billion in building an integrated project to develop and liquefy natural gas for export to Asia. (US$1=C$1.25). If it materialises, the ambitious project will represent the state firm’s biggest single investment in its 41-year history.
Petronas’s Canadian venture began in 2012 when it paid C$5.9 billion to acquire Calgary-based upstream company Progress Energy to supply natural gas for a proposed export-oriented liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal near Prince Rupert on the British Columbia coast.
Analysts and Malaysia’s opposition politicians question the wisdom of investing another C$30 billion to complete the proposed LNG project as it would stretch the company’s financial and managerial resources. Following the oil market’s collapse, Asia’s spot LNG prices have plunged from a peak of US$20 per million BTU in early 2014 to less than US$8 a year later. With prices not expected to fully recover for probably a few years, the project is unlikely to be viable for some time.
Mr Zulkiflee, who joined Petronas in 1983, also holds the positions of executive director and executive vice-president of its downstream business, and chairman of subsidiaries Petronas Chemicals Group Bhd and Petronas Dagangan Bhd.