Timor-Leste buys into the Sunrise Oil and Gas Project
30 October 2018. Updated 16 January 2019
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The Greater Sunrise oil and gas field in the Timor Sea has been the subject of exploration, controversy, and negotiations since it was discovered in 1974. In particular, the question of where to liquefy the natural gas -- converting it into LNG which can be shipped to overseas customers -- has been vociferously debated since Indonesia was forced out of Timor-Leste in 1999. La'o Hamutuk has followed the issue since 2000, publishing facts and analysis to advocate for Timor-Leste's national sovereignty and for policy decisions which advance the well-being of the people of Timor-Leste.
In 2008, La'o Hamutuk published a book Sunrise LNG in Timor-Leste: Dreams, Realities and Challenges, which is on-line in English and Bahasa Indonesia, with a summary in Tetum. The report includes a history of relevant events from 1970 through 2008. In 2008 we also published a primer on LNG Basics and an article on potential benefits from Sunrise LNG in Timor-Leste. Our previous web page on the Sunrise project discusses events through 2015.
The Sunrise controversy is entangled in the troubled history of maritime boundary negotiations between Timor-Leste and Australia. Follow this link for information and documents on events from 2012 to 2016, or this one for developments since then. which includes many more articles and links for the process leading up to signing the Boundary Treaty on 6 March 2018.
The Sunrise project is operated by Woodside (Australia), which has a 33.44% share in the project shared with joint venture partners ConocoPhillips (USA, 30%), Royal Dutch Shell (UK/Netherlands, 26.56%) and Osaka Gas (Japan, 10%). They estimate that the field contains 5.13 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas and 226 million barrels of condensate (oil), which some analysts believe will sell for about $50 billion. After paying for capital investment, operating costs and company profit, this might generate $5-20 billion in tax and royalty revenue to Timor-Leste. If Timor-Leste becomes a part-owner of the project, we will share in the profits, as well as in the responsibility for investment. It is not clear that the benefits to Timor-Leste will be more than the costs.
For many years, Sunrise has been stalled because Timor-Leste’s government has insisted that its natural gas be piped to Timor-Leste, where it will be cooled until it becomes a liquid (Liquefied Natural Gas or LNG; see 2008 primer) that can be loaded onto tanker ships and sold to overseas customers. However, the Joint Venture companies believe that other ways of making LNG – either through a pipeline to Australia (Darwin LNG or DLNG) or on a floating platform above the field (FLNG) – will be more profitable and less risky. ConocoPhillips wants to process the gas in Darwin, perhaps because it is the principal owner of the soon-to-be-idle LNG plant there (see box at right); they persuaded Shell, Woodside and Osaka Gas to support their position. Before that, the Joint Venture had preferred FLNG; Timor LNG was always the third choice for all the partners.
Timor-Leste’s government believes that spinoff jobs, contracts and local economic development on the Tasi Mane coast will more than compensate for the higher costs and risks of bringing the gas here, but this view is not shared by Australia, the Sunrise Joint Venture, or the UN Conciliation Commission that facilitated the Boundary Treaty. La’o Hamutuk and experts we have consulted are not convinced that the benefits to Timor-Leste are greater than the costs, and we have repeatedly asked the managers of the project for the assumptions and data that make them so optimistic (see below).
On 3 March 2018, Forbes published Overblown Expectations for East Timor's Greater Sunrise Oil and Gas, which estimates that Timor-Leste could receive about $8 billion in revenues if the gas is processed through a pipeline to Darwin, but that a pipeline to Timor-Leste would make the project economically unviable. A few days later, the Australian Financial Review and others expected that the new treaty would support the Sunrise gas project (in Darwin).
On the eve of the 6 March signing, ABC revealed a leaked letter Xanana had written to the Conciliation Commission the week before. Mr. Gusmão blasted the Commission's "lack of impartiality" for comparing the Darwin and Timor LNG options. A few days later, The Australian wrote that Xanana Gusmao’s Timor Sea rant is an own goal [score for the other team] for his needy nation.The Treaty between Timor-Leste and Australia Establishing their Maritime Boundaries in the Timor Sea was signed in New York on 6 March 2018. The Permanent Court of Arbitration, which served as the secretariat for the conciliation process, issued a 50-page press package, including the 30 August 2017 Comprehensive Package Agreement (which has an "Approach on the Greater Sunrise Development Concept" and an action plan), the text of the treaty (with five annexes) (also Portuguese), and a Paper on the Comparative Development Benefits of Timor-LNG and Darwin-LNG.
The Treaty replaces the Timor Sea Treaty and the Sunrise International Unitization Agreement, defining the limits of the national territories of both nations for the first time. However, Sunrise is still on both sides of the border; the new line crosses the field in an arbitrary location, chosen to put approximately 70% of it in Timor-Leste's territory and 30% in Australia's. This boundary may be readjusted after Timor-Leste and Indonesia settle their maritime border and Sunrise has been emptied and decommissioned. Although negotiators were unable to reach agreement on where Sunrise gas would be processed, the Treaty establishes a Greater Sunrise Special Regime to govern its joint development.
On 21 March, La'o Hamutuk published a comprehensive article The Timor-Leste-Australia Maritime Boundary Treaty (also PDF, abridged blog and Tetum). International media covered the signing extensively, and many articles are linked to from our web page on the treaty process. Although the negotiators had hoped to resolve the Sunrise question before the Treaty was signed, they were unable to. Because Sunrise straddles the boundary established by the new treaty, Timor-Leste will receive 70% of the government revenues from extracting Sunrise oil and gas if the gas is processed in Timor-Leste, and 80% if it is processed in Australia.
In May 2018, the Conciliation Commission published a comprehensive Report with 28 Annexes, describing how the Conciliators got Timor-Leste and Australia to agree on a maritime boundary treaty. The Commission recommended "that the Parties continue their discussions regarding the development of Greater Sunrise with a view to reaching agreement on a concept for the development of the resource."
Like any treaty, this one needs to be ratified by both Parliaments. Australia began its process in late March, with a National Interest Analysis. Their Parliamentary Committee received many submissions, including from La'o Hamutuk (also Tetum), and published its report in August.
Although Timor-Leste's National Parliament has not yet begun its ratification process, La'o Hamutuk sent them an unsolicited submission (Tetum original) on 6 August recommending, among other things, that Government, Parliament and the public should conduct a rigorous and objective assessment of the Tasi Mane Project's fiscal, social, economic and environmental costs, benefits and risks before spending more money on it.
On 25 June 2018, Natural Gas Daily reported that East Timor restarts Sunrise talks after elections. On 22 July, the Australian Financial Review cited Woodside CEO Peter Coleman calling for a 'fresh start' on the Sunrise LNG negotiations. A few days later, Timor-Leste government news agency Tatoli reported that Timor-Leste was preparing to bring the Sunrise gas pipeline to its south coast. On 27 July, Timor-Leste's Parliament approved the new Government's program, which includes Sunrise LNG in Timor-Leste. On 21 August, Timor-Leste's Council of Ministers reappointed Xanana Gusmão as Special Representative for concluding the treaty ratification and the Greater Sunrise agreements.
On 6 August, Interfax Natural Gas Daily reported that Timor-Leste is considering buying out the oil companies who hold the Greater Sunrise contract. On 13 September, the Australian Financial Review reported that Timor-Leste was considering bidding US $5 billion to buy out ConocoPhillips share of the Greater Sunrise field.
On 28 September, negotiators from the Timor-Leste government and ConocoPhillips agreed that Timor-Leste will pay $350 million to purchase ConocoPhillips’ share of the Joint Venture to develop the Greater Sunrise oil and gas field. Timor-Leste will own 30% of this project, together with Woodside, Shell and Osaka Gas. On behalf of the state, TimorGAP will participate in project decisions, be responsible for 30% of the investment, and be entitled to 30% of the company share of the profits. The deal was announced by ConocoPhillips and by Timor-Leste, and La'o Hamutuk wrote an article (also Tetum) explaining its significance for the nation and describing the next steps to bring the gas pipeline to Timor-Leste.
GMN TV was given exclusive access to the signing ceremony, and produced a 22-minute program (29 MB Tetum video). On 5 October, the lead story on their evening news was La'o Hamutuk and FONGTIL questioning whether the deal is good for Timor-Leste (9MB Tetum video).
The buyout was widely covered in international media, including Timor-Leste buys ConocoPhillips stake in Greater Sunrise consortium (LUSA, 28/9), East Timor buys ConocoPhillips’ Greater Sunrise share for A$484m (Australian Financial Review, 30/9), Woodside considers options as ConocoPhillips sells Sunrise LNG stake to East Timor Government (West Australian, 1/10), ConocoPhillips sells stake in Sunrise gas field to East Timor (Reuters, 1/10) and Timor-Leste buys A$484 million stake in Greater Sunrise fields and pushes for LNG pipeline (also radio broadcast) (ABC News 2/10).
The media soon became more analytical: Timor-Leste one step closer to LNG ambitions but hurdles remain (Platts S&P Global, 2/10), East Timor stake buy brings Sunrise gas field a step closer (Reuters, 2/10), Timor-Leste determined on Sunrise, (Upstream, 4/10) and Why Timor-Leste took its A$484 million Greater Sunrise gamble (Crikey, 9/10).
La’o Hamutuk has serious doubts that such an analysis will prove that the benefits of bringing the Sunrise pipeline to Timor-Leste are enough to justify its huge costs, risks and social impacts. But even if they are, the recent agreement to purchase ConocoPhillips’ 30% share is insufficient to ensure that the pipeline will come here.
On 20 November, analyst Juvinal Dias wrote Oinsa TL bele sukat oportunidade hose sosa asoens ConocoPhillips nian iha JV Sunrise in the Neon Metin blog.
On 21 November 2018, Timor-Leste and Shell signed an agreement for the Government to purchase Shell's 26.56% of the Sunrise project for $300 million, bringing Timor-Leste's total share to 56.56%, with a corresponding obligation to pay more of the development costs. The company and government issued a joint press release, and the deal was reported by LUSA (also Tetum), Interfax and Reuters. A decade ago, Shell had hoped to develop its new Floating LNG technology with the Sunrise Project, but the availability of the Darwin LNG plant and Timor-Leste's insistence that the gas be piped to Beaçu has made that virtually impossible.
After the Shell sale was announced, Australian media ABC and the Lowy Interpreter published articles questioning the wisdom of the project. FRETILIN leader Mari Alkatiri called for a national debate on buying into the Joint Venture.
International financial and oil industry commentators also wrote about the sale, including Zacks Equity Research on why Shell sold, and ENB Slugcatcher on the likelihood of Timor-Leste also buying out Woodside.
Chief Negotiator Xanana Gusmão returned to a hero's welcome in Timor-Leste on 8 October, calling on everyone to unite to bring the Sunrise pipeline to Timor-Leste, which he said it was clear would happen.
On 22 October, Xanana was interviewed in GMN-TV's Grand Intervista program about g7+ and the Sunrise buyout (55-minute Tetum video on YouTube; Sunrise discussion starts 21 minutes in). To facilitate access, you can download a lower-resolution video (34 MB) of the Sunrise portion. GMN's evening news also broadcast a two-minute excerpt of the key points (1.5 MB video, Tetum/English transcript). In response to those who question the cost or feasibility of the project, the Chief Negotiator said "I don't care" and encouraged viewers to trust that "I will win" and prove the naysayers wrong, as he did in the struggle for Timor-Leste's independence. A few weeks later, Xanana acknowledged that Sunrise could cost Timor-Leste $2.5 billion for the upstream work that the joint venture will do, plus another $5 billion for the pipeline and LNG Plant. With the 21 November purchase of Shell's 27% share, the nation's share of the upstream costs alone could be over $4 billion.
Timor-Leste's Government is preparing the General State Budget for 2019. On 22 October, the acting Minister of Finance announced that the budget will be larger than expected, and TimorGAP President Francisco Monteiro said it will include $350 million for Sunrise buyout, as well as $24 million more for the Ministry of Petroleum and Minerals, twice as much as MPM's average allocation during the past six years. As presented to Parliament on 8 November, the proposed budget law doesn't have much detail:
The budget proposal was sent to Parliament before the Shell deal was signed, but Parliament has not gotten very far in discussing it, largely because the Government has yet to provide much of the supporting documentation. It may be possible to revise the proposal to include the $300 million for Shell's participation, which would push the 2019 General State Budget over $2 billion, the largest in the nation's history.
Timor-Leste will have to invest at least 14 billion dollars more (and perhaps much more) in capital expenditures to implement the Sunrise and Tasi Mane projects, and 90% of these costs have never been mentioned in published State Budget forecasts, which go through 2023. La'o Hamutuk has roughly estimated them as follows, in millions of U.S. dollars:
Some political leaders have suggested that most of this money should be invested directly by the Petroleum Fund, rather than taken as an expenditure through the General State Budget approved by Government and Parliament. Although Article 15 of the Petroleum Fund Law (as revised) allows up to 5% of the Fund (about $800 million) to be invested in "other eligible investments" approved by the Minister of Finance (which could include petroleum projects), the article also requires that all investments must be located outside of Timor-Leste. However, the Government may ask Parliament to revise the Petroleum Fund Law to enable risky, non-traditional investments of a larger portion of it within the national territory.
During the last week of October 2018, the first LNG shipment left the new Ichthys LNG plant in Darwin, two years late and $6 billion over budget. Although Ichthys is somewhat larger than Greater Sunrise, its $40 billion capital investment cost illustrates the scale of this kind of project. With INPEX construction finished and the workers returned to their homes elsewhere, Darwin is experiencing economic problems, as exemplified by a sharp drop in house values.
Following a few days in Timor-Leste in late November, Australia's Assistant Minister for the Pacific Anne Ruston said that "this is a commercial decision for the Timor-Leste government, and we have to respect that decision" (summary, audio).
On 22 October, Timor-Leste's government asked Parliament to amend Petroleum Activities Law no. 13/2005 (official Portuguese) which was enacted after extensive consultation and has provided governance, transparency and checks and balances over the country's contracting with oil companies for the last 13 years. The proposed amendment (Portuguese and English, with explanations) would allow the State to participate in a joint venture with a share larger than 20%, as well as eliminating preventive oversight of petroleum-related contracts by the Audit Chamber of the High Administrative, Tax and Audit Court. As explained by Government, this amendment is intended to smooth the way for Timor-Leste's participation in the Greater Sunrise project.
Parliament was asked to consider it during a four-day holiday weekend, and the process is being rushed through. If it passes, it will be retroactive to 27 September, before the buyout deal was signed with ConocoPhillips.
The first five of the six new clauses in the law would remove a perceived 20% limit in the portion of a petroleum project that Timor-Leste or its public companies can own. However, this does not seem necessary, as that limit has never constrained the State from owning more than 20% of a project. TimorGAP is already a 50% partner (with Timor Resources) in two onshore Production-Sharing Contracts (PSCs), the 100% owner of PSC S0-15-01 in the exclusive maritime area, and a 24% partner (with Eni and Inpex) of PSC JPDA 11-106 in the offshore Joint Petroleum Development Area. There is no 20% limit in current law for Timor-Leste buying into a project; that number only applies to participation which must be written into a new Production-Sharing Contract to allow the State to opt-in to a petroleum project without paying.
Many believe that the real reason behind this amendment is to remove Audit Court oversight not only of petroleum contracts but of loan agreements and other "contracts ... for the conduct of [petroleum operations]" which will be signed as the Sunrise project moves forward. Some Timor-Leste politicians have become impatient with the governance and transparency requirements written in to the State's petroleum laws. In recent years, the Audit Court has knocked back the $719 million procurement contract for the Suai Supply Base (although this was overturned on appeal), and a contract to borrow $50 million from the Chinese Ex-Im Bank to rehabilitate Dili's drainage system. However, ZEESM's 2014 enabling legislation exempted its contracts from prior Audit Court review, so there is an unfortunate precedent.
Since Timor-Leste's current creditors are not interested in lending money for the Tasi Mane project, it is likely that Timor-Leste will seek financing of the multi-billion Sunrise and Tasi Mane investments from China, which has led to concerns about a "debt trap." In other countries, including Sri Lanka and Angola, the difficulties in repaying loans from China have increased poverty, reduced democracy and sacrificed national sovereignty -- consequences reminiscent of the global debt crisis to the IMF and World Bank in the late 1990s.
Many of the negotiations and concessions in relation to the Tasi Mane and Sunrise projects have been done without public transparency, accountability or oversight by the responsible government agencies. As Timor-Leste leaders ask to pour billions of dollars from the national treasury into projects with dubious financial, economic or social return, these checks and balances are even more essential. Many countries which depend on extracting petroleum have been cursed by squandering their people's money on ill-conceived projects, which is why it is crucial to have expert analysis of project contracts carried out by State agencies which do not have a personal stake in pursuing them regardless of the costs and benefits.
In their brief analysis of the proposed amendment, the Parliamentary Plenary Support Division (DIPLEN) wrote "On the basis of available evidence, it is not possible to identify and quantify the financial costs resulting from the approval of this law." We believe that the costs are far too great, and call on Parliament to reject the proposed changes. While we don't yet know how many billions of dollars will be spent on the Sunrise and Tasi Mane projects (including debt service and possible default), the costs to fiscal responsibility, democracy and accountability are clear.
Parliament Committees C and D began considering the proposed revision on 6 November with a four-hour, closed-door hearing with Chief Negotiator Xanana Gusmão (reported by LUSA, Tatoli, Parliament, RTTL Video), in which he reportedly threatened MPs who did not support the project. After the hearing, Xanana told journalists that the $350 million purchase should be invested directly by the Petroleum Fund, rather than included as an expenditure item in the State Budget, but cooler heads prevailed as this is not allowed under current law.
Also on 6 November, the Council of Ministers increased the total appropriations for the 2019 State Budget from $1.3 billion to nearly $1.9 billion. Government made its budget proposal to Parliament on 8 November, and the $1.827 billion they asked for includes $350 million to pay for ConocoPhillips' part of Sunrise.
La'o Hamutuk and the NGO Forum wrote a joint submission (Tetum) to Parliament on 7 November, which was reported by LUSA in Portuguese. The Core Group on Transparency also made a submission (also with FONGTIL). The civil society groups urged Parliament not to approve the law.
During the Parliamentary process, an additional clause was added to the law, stating that "The Petroleum Fund may be applied (invested) directly in Petroleum Operations, in the national territory or abroad, through the execution of commercial transactions, through Timor Gap, EP, pursuant to Article 15.4 of [the Petroleum Fund Law as revised.]" This clause, in the proposed Revision of the Petroleum Activities Law, potentially contradicts several clauses in Article 15 of the Petroleum Fund Law, which states that it can only be invested abroad, that no more than 5% can be in non-financial instruments, and that no more than 3% can be invested in any one company.
On 7 November, Parliament held another hearing with representatives of the Central Bank and the Audit Court (Tatoli). On 13 November, Parliament Committees C and D issued a report recommending approval of the law. Their report included annexes with submissions from the Petroleum Fund Consultative Council, FONGTIL/CGT, La'o Hamutuk and TimorGAP.
The following day, the Parliamentary plenary completed the process of debate and approval of the law, with 37 votes in favor, 22 against and no abstentions. FRETILIN issued a press release explaining why they voted against the proposed alteration.
The proposed law has been sent to the President of the Republic, who has 30 days to decide whether to promulgate or veto it. A delegation from La'o Hamutuk and the NGO Forum met with the President on 27 November to encourage him to veto. The meeting was reported by the President's office, Tatoli, RTTL-TV, GMN TV and other media. The next day, the President said he was still studying the issue.
On 30 November, Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak said that this is not an easy decision for the President, but Timorese people must be brave enough to accept the risk (Tetum audio).
On Saturday, 8 December, Chief Negotiator Xanana Gusmão, accompanied by ANPM President Gualdino da Silva and TimorGAP President Francisco Monteiro, gave an all day 'seminar' to a capacity crowd at Dili Convention Center. They explained the history of the maritime boundary dispute with Australia, the legal implications of the new boundary treaty, and their optimistic projections for the economic benefits from the Greater Sunrise pipeline and the Tasi Mane Project. Although no questions or discussion were allowed, most of the presentations are linked to from the previous sentence.
On 11 December, President Francisco Guterres 'Lú Olo' vetoed the proposed amendment to the Petroleum Activities Law and sent it back to Parliament. Skip down for information on the veto and Parliament's efforts to override it.
Parliament began debating the 2019 State Budget in plenary on 6 December with a speech by the Prime Minister and a consolidated Committee Report, and the debate will continue until the 22nd. The Sunrise project is one of the most controversial issues. In its Recommendations to Government, Parliament's Economic Committee D suggested: "Committee D and all Members of Parliament still have no access to independent studies of recognized quality on the feasibility of the Timor-Leste petrochemical pipeline project (pipeline, LNG plant and refinery). In the light of conflicting information on its feasibility, the Committee appeals once again for the Government to provide, albeit with conditions due to the special sensitivity of the subject, any credible, independent studies about the subject. On the other hand, the Committee - and certainly all Members of the National Parliament - would like to have access to any cost-benefit studies (including periods of production and deadlines) for alternative strategies for the exploitation of Greater Sunrise (at least those originally proposed by the oil companies -- referring to the pipeline to Darwin or the floating platform -- and the one proposed by the Government) since up to now such a comparative study has not been available to us -- which would greatly help us make a decision on the present and future allocations of resources."
During the budget debate, Government distributed a USB memory stick to members of Parliament, which included:
On 20 December, Parliament approved an amendment (right) to add $300 million to the 2019 budget for purchasing Shell's participation in the Sunrise Joint Venture, bringing the total to more than $2.1 billion. The budget was approved by a 40-25 vote in Parliament on 22 December, and the President must decide whether to promulgate or veto it by 24 January. As described on our budget page, he is consulting widely.
On 11 December, President Francisco Guterres 'Lú Olo' vetoed the proposed amendment to the Petroleum Activities Law, as provided in article 88.1 of Timor-Leste's Constitution. He sent it back to Parliament for reappraisal with a five-page letter (text, including English), citing as the fundamental reason to avoid distorting and diluting the investment rules of the Petroleum Fund by allowing direct investment in broadly-defined 'Petroleum operations" carried out through commercial transactions, reducing its liquidity. The President told Parliament that this would jeopardize financial and institutional stability of the sovereign wealth fund, opening the way for whatever political force is in power to use the Fund as it chooses.
His public explanation (Tetum and Portuguese) gave the following reasons:
The veto stimulated vociferous, often uninformed, debate among Timorese politicians and local media. On 14 December, Xanana Gusmão responded in a two-hour interview on GMN TV, which you can watch on YouTube.
Parliament finished debate and voting on the 2019 State Budget before discussing the Presidential veto.
International media continued to report on the Sunrise buy-in, including Macauhub (Dili takes control of Greater Sunrise project in huge gamble), Upstream (Legislative delay slows progress on Sunrise) and Argus media (Viewpoint: PNG, East Timor face different LNG outlooks).
On 8 January, Special Representative Xanana Gusmão, accompanied by the Prime Minister and representatives from ANPM and TimorGAP, went to Parliament to explain the Sunrise buyout (Parliament press release). The presentation and handouts largely repeated the public presentation on 8 December, although this time questions were permitted, and the opposition asked many. Gusmão "guaranteed" that the $13 billion necessary to build the in-field infrastructure, pipeline and LNG plant would not come from the Petroleum Fund, but may be borrowed.
Following sharp questioning from the opposition, he angrily offered to cancel the project (video excerpt). FRETILIN leader Mari Alkatiri responded in the media that his party is not against developing Greater Sunrise, but wants to do it sustainably.
On 10 January, Parliament discussed the Presidential veto of the amendment to the Petroleum Activities Law (debate rules), with statements from CNRT and FRETILIN, and Fretilin walked out. The remaining Deputies voted 41-1 to override the veto, as described by Parliament, LUSA and Tatoli (Tetum). Adriano do Nascimento from Partidu Demokratiku cast the only vote to uphold the veto, and gave three reasons:
If the veto is indeed overridden and the legislation is legal (FRETILIN continues to question it), the President must promulgate the law by 18 January.
La'o Hamutuk is concerned that many public statements by politicians and articles in the media on the Sunrise project contain errors and/or disinformation, or omit important issues. Therefore, we have published Misinformation and facts about the Greater Sunrise project (PDF or blog) to help improve understanding of this complex topic.
The Timor-Leste Media Development Center publishes daily English summaries of articles in the local media. Here are a few recent summaries relating to Greater Sunrise project.
For more information, see these relevant web pages:
The Timor-Leste Institute for Development Monitoring and Analysis (La’o Hamutuk)