How profitable is Uganda’s oil venture?

According to experts, Uganda has so far done well in regard to managing input costs, which is a key ingredient in determinig profitability. PHOTO | file 

What you need to know:

There has been too much talk in relation to the long-term profitability of Uganda’s oil. Of course, the world is moving away from manufacturing cars that burn fuel to making those that are powered by electric or solar energy. But from expert analysis, all indications suggest oil is still around for a long time. Therefore, given the fact that Uganda had managed well its input cost so far, suggestions indicate Uganda’s oil will be one of the most profitable across the globe. 

Total Energies and CNOOC as joint venture partners are heralding Uganda’s low-cost reserves as part of a growing wave of investments to open up East Africa as a frontier for oil and gas exploration.

However, changes in the global oil market accelerated by low carbon transition has depressed expectations for long-term oil demand.

 A 2020 Climate Policy Initiative report shows the shift has progressively reduced long-term Business as Usual price projections, causing the value of upstream oil reserves to fall by 70 percent or $47b, to $18b today.

It is envisaged that the competitiveness of Uganda’s crude oil on the global market is largely related to its production cost.

Analysts at Climate Policy Initiative paint a proper picture. They believe that for Uganda’s oil to be competitive, the marginal cost to the global market needs to be lower.

The marginal cost of Uganda’s oil includes lifting costs, those relating to production (including fuel and labour) and administrative expenses relating to the production process. These add up to about $12 (Shs42,338) per barrel in real terms.

For instance, analysts predict that if Brent oil (which is a global bench mark for oil pricing purposes) has price of $40 (Shs141126) , in theory, Uganda’s oil would have at least $28 (Shs98,788) of profit per barrel to cover upfront investment in oil production facilities and investment in operation of the EACOP pipeline, while delivering a return to investors.

However, the main driver of upstream oil value and climate transition risk remains the same: if global oil prices fall, profits from selling Uganda’s oil will fall and vice versa.


However, some oil experts dismiss the carbon transition risk, and are optimistic of Uganda’s oil profitability based on global capital expenditure projections.

There are plenty of reasons for the oil sector to remain optimistic about the future, according to Francesco Martoccia, the Citi Bank global oil market analyst.

One of the reasons, he says, is the efficient use of capital in oil exploration and production, which, as he notes, “takes into account that one dollar invested in oil is used much more efficiently than five to seven years ago”.

For instance, an oil company needed about $35 (Shs123,485) per barrel to develop oil reserves around 2013 and 2014, but now only between $11 (Shs38,809) and $12 (Shs42,338) per barrel are need to fund and develop.   Globally, the capital expenditure per barrel in investment is on the downward trajectory.

According to the IHS Upstream Capital Cost indicator, the upstream capital costs have been on a downward trend following the reduction in international crude oil prices from the highs experienced in 2014.

Lower prices were further exacerbated by the onset of Covid-19, which temporarily eliminated significant daily demand for crude oil.

Coincidentally, this was the time when Uganda was concluding the designs for flagship development projects and hence has seen significant reductions in the capital costs from 2016.

The prevailing crude oil price environment, therefore, makes Uganda’s oil projects economically viable.

This is mainly driven by the low cost of finding and developing the resources.

The Petroleum Authority of Uganda estimates that the current projected technical costs are below $20 (Shs70,503), per barrel and the break-even cost, at a 15 percent discount rate, is below $35 (Shs123,425) per barrel.    

The current estimates project that government revenue from the upstream alone remain extremely favourable.

The basis for investment is the need for the international oil companies to secure a 15 percent return at an international oil price of $50 (Shs176,404) per barrel.

Depending on whether capital expenditure per barrel for Uganda’s oil resources is down or not, the profitability will mainly be by three factors.

According to Peninah Aheebwa, Petroleum Authority of Uganda director technical services, the factors include; the costs to develop and operate oil projects (capital and operational), production volumes over the project life (amount of oil to be produced) and the oil price (the price achieved following the sale of the crude oil on the international market).

“The significant reduction in capital costs provides an opportunity for improved profitability from cost savings on the projects and hence more revenue for Uganda and its partners,” she says.

Additionally, as the international oil prices have recently improved, there will be additional windfall revenues due to higher-than-expected prices on the international market.

The oil and gas resources that have been discovered in Uganda to date, are close to 6.5 billion barrels in the Albertine Graben region.

Out of the 6.5 billion barrels, oil companies will recover about 1.4 billion barrels, at a peak production rate of about 230,000 barrels per day.

The amount of money that has been invested in exploration and appraisal so far, is approximately $3.8b.

At 6.5 billion barrels, this translates into finding costs of less than $3 (Shs10,584) per barrel, which, compared to a global average of $5 (Shs17,640) per barrel, is one of the lowest costs of finding petroleum.

In Aheebwa’s view, this means that, so far, the aspect of managing costs in the exploration phase has been done well yet 88 percent of drilled wells during exploration found oil.

This is one of the highest global success rates, given that on average, only 25 percent of wells the world over, yield oil at the exploration phase.

Currently, Brent crude price averages above $90 per barrel due to a surge in global oil demand.

However the path for long-run oil price being quite unpredictable.

Aheebwa quotes the US Energy Information Administration, which provides  numerous price forecast scenarios with a high case scenario of Brent oil prices of over $100 (Shs352,816) per barrel in 2025, if the cost to produce oil drops and it crowds out competing energy sources.

However, there’s a projection that economic conditions could drive the price even higher.

But even then, in the best case scenario, oil prices are forecast to average above $60 (Shs211,690) per barrel in 2025, giving a profit advantage.

Flow of upstream revenue           

Government revenues from the oil and gas sector includes royalties, profit oil share, state participation and taxes.

The Production Sharing Agreements signed between governments and the oil companies provide for the sharing of petroleum revenues during production.

When production starts, government will first receive a royalty payment of between 5 percent and 12.5 percent depending on the level of production.

Then, the next deduction goes to recovery of the oil company costs, which is capped at 70 percent of the remaining oil after royalty deduction.

The next payment is considered as profit oil, which is shared between the company and government as per the Production Sharing Agreements.

Government also receives corporate tax of approximately 30 percent on the oil company’s share of profit oil. 

Therefore, government’s total take from upstream, as per the current Production Sharing Agreements, ranges between 65 percent and 80 percent.

The overall projected annual revenues from the sector are estimated at $1.5b to $2b.


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