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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chevron Mired in Tenghiz Murk

LOS ANGELES -- Chevron Corp. has gone all over the world drilling for oil, but when it set its sights on Kazakhstan in 1993, it won special notice from investors, other oil companies and even the U.S. government.

The Tenghiz field in the former Soviet republic was not just another oilfield. It was the biggest untapped reserve of oil in the world, expected to eventually produce 700,000 barrels of crude per day, one of the world's oilfield giants.

So it was with great fanfare that U.S.-based Chevron announced, even as other oil companies were waiting for the postcommunist economy to stabilize, that it had acquired a 50 percent stake in Tenghiz.

But things haven't gone according to plan in the so-called Tengizchevroil project.

Chevron recently cut in half its original projections for this year's output and slashed spending there as it becomes increasingly difficult to say when its investment will begin to pay off with the kind of large output promised.

Investors are growing impatient, the United States is second-guessing its initial assumption that Central Asia would be friendly to Western oil interests, and oil companies that once appeared envious of the project are sighing with relief that they waited to learn from Chevron's mistakes.

For while there are vast quantities of oil in the ground in Kazakhstan, nobody has yet figured out how to get it to Western markets.

Chevron's problems first surfaced last year when the company was trying to move the region's sulphur-laden crude through Russia and onto the world export market.

Russia agreed to take only a small volume of the crude because the oil contained foul-smelling sulphur compounds called mercaptans. If the Tenghiz producers could find a way to remove the mercaptans, Russia would accept more and production could get back on track.

Today, two so-called demercaptanization plants have been installed and the smell is gone. But Russia is still refusing to accept more of the crude into its pipelines.

With no export route, Tenghiz output remains well behind schedule at just 60,000 barrels per day. And talks to construct a crude pipeline that will eventually be needed to move the larger volumes have reached an impasse.

In negotiating a new pipeline, Chevron has not had to deal with just Russia and Kazakhstan, but Oman as well.

It was Oman that first recognized the lucrative potential of a new pipeline from Tenghiz through Russia to the Black Sea and formed the Caspian Pipeline Consortium. However, the CPC's proposed financing seems to be a sweetheart deal for Oman at the expense of Chevron.

Thus, even though the oil does not originate or even move through the Arab country, Oman wants a substantial cut of the profits for itself, a condition Chevron has thus far refused to accept.

Chevron, which at its 1994 annual meeting highlighted the Tenghiz project with a slide show of its drilling equipment sitting among sheep in the remote central Asian state, has recently taken a more cautious tone.

"We are satisfied with the progress we've made there so far," said Nick Zana, Chevron's general director of the Tenghiz project.

"Chevron has existed for about 110 years and we don't come to countries like Kazakhstan with a two- or three-year point of view. Our interest there is very long term."

The company also notes that the $715 million it invested in Tenghiz in the first two and a half years works out to only about 6 percent of its total capital spending budget.

"People say it's a make or break for the company, but it's not that much money out of our total budget," said Chevron spokesman Mike Libbey.

But amid all the delays, suspicions are mounting that oil may never flow at the pace Chevron had planned on, that as one barrier is removed Moscow will put up another in an effort to keep control of the natural resources in all the former republics that once fell under its purview.

"Mercaptans were just one of the stumbling blocks Russia put up to make development of Tenghiz to full capacity impossible," said Julia Nanay, an analyst with the Washington-based Petroleum Finance Co.

Salomon Brothers analyst Paul Ting noted that while Chevron has gotten the most notice because of the enormity of the Tenghiz project, its experience is typical of almost all Western oil companies now dealing in the former Soviet Union.

"All the other projects there that were pursued with a high degree of enthusiasm have since been tempered," Ting said.

"There is a lack of physical infrastructure, taxation issues are unsettled, the ground rules are very unsettled. I think the ground rules are one of the overriding uncertainties that have pushed [Chevron's] go-slow strategy into a go-slower strategy," he added.