Central Asia's new great game draws a player with an eye for oil and gas

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 09 May, 2011, 12:00am


David Robson is a large, cheerful man from the north of England with a big ambition - he wants to create the biggest oil and gas company in Central Asia, and is well-positioned to achieve his goal.

Robson is the president and CEO of Tethys Petroleum, an exploration and production company with operations in the Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. He has spent the past 20 years working in areas such as Siberia, Sakhalin, Murmansk, and the Caspian region.

'Central Asia has always had a fascination for me in terms of its geological potential for oil and gas. It's a vast region covering many different sedimentary basins. Many of them are either poorly explored or unexplored,' says Robson.

Tethys Petroleum takes its name from the Tethys Ocean, which covered Central Asia and the surrounding areas some 250 million years ago.

For Robson a key component in building a big oil and gas company is first acquiring an exploration area that has huge potential.

The problem for small companies working in other parts of the world, he says, is that they are competing with the majors for small areas in relatively mature locations. Central Asia's attraction is that it is still in the development stage.

Tethys, which is listed on the Canadian and Kazakhstan stock exchanges, has a market capitalisation of about US$393 million, which makes it a small player compared with the likes of British Petroleum at around US$144 billion. However, Robson has set the stage for achieving his goal in that that he has secured considerable exploration acreage in the region.

In Tajikistan, Tethys has an enormous area of some 34,785 square kilometres, which is almost the size of Switzerland. In Kazakhstan, it has an area of 10,668 square kilometres, while in Uzbekistan it is working to increase production at a number of oilfields and is also in discussion with the government for additional exploration concessions.

Tethys was founded in 2007 and 16 months ago discovered a significant oil field in Kazakhstan, which it has called Doris. It has continued to explore this oilfield and last month another exploration well struck oil in commercial quantities.

The company is already selling oil from its initial discovery well to provide cash flow and intends to increase production to between 4,000 and 5,000 barrels a day (BPD) by mid-year, while continuing to delineate the extent of this oilfield.

Tethys is the third petroleum company that Robson has started up and listed, after the London-listed JKX Oil & Gas, which is focused mainly on Ukraine and Russia, and CanArgo Energy Corporation, which is now listed on the OTC markets in Norway and the US, while its operations are centred in Georgia.

Tethys was spun out of CanArgo in 2007 to focus on Central Asia. Robson had hoped to list in Hong Kong but gave up after two years of trying in the face of what he felt was considerable reluctance on the part of the Securities and Futures Commission.

Robson is a geologist by training with a doctorate in geochemisty. He started work as an explorer in the North Sea before moving into production, figuring out how to extract the maximum amount of oil from a reservoir once it has been discovered.

'Exploration is extremely exciting. It is expensive - its costs tens of millions of dollars to drill these wells - while production is a very detailed science and is very satisfying if you can achieve good oil production rates and maximise profits,' he says.

It was largely due to the varied experience of Robson and his exploration vice-president who had also worked in the North Sea that Tethys discovered the Doris oilfield.

'People had looked at the region before - the Kazakhs and the Japanese national oil corporation and hadn't found anything,' he said. 'We applied what you might call a new geological method - by applying techniques from the North Sea - and came up with what looks like a sizeable oilfield below the gas field.'

Robson said the discovery was satisfying as the company's reserve auditors - the people who look at the data tests - gave it no more than a one in 10 chance of finding oil.

Most exploration wells have probably no more than a one in five chance of success. Robson says he was more bullish than that, as he had noticed that large oil deposits had been found in an area several hundred kilometres away, in a place with a similar geology.

When it came to Kazakhstan, Robson said, 'you had to look at a map of Central Asia and think about how this region had developed over the last 200 million years and where the oil could have formed'.

Robson says it took two years to negotiate the big exploration area in Tajikistan. 'We got it because we had built up a reputation for being reliable partners in Georgia, then Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan,' he said. 'Major companies like to have everything tied up, all the agreements signed and ratified. We were prepared to take a bit of a risk, invest some capital, get something going, employ local people - and generate a bit of goodwill.'

For the moment Tethys is a small player and the oil and gas that it produces is processed and consumed locally. But when the time comes to export these fuels, Tethys will increasingly get drawn into the new so-called 'great game' that is being played out in the region.

Central Asia has the world's fourth-largest gas reserves at a conservative estimate, after Qatar, Iran, and Russia, with about 12 trillion cubic metres according to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy.

China is a prime candidate to take much of this gas, given that it is now a gas importer and is seeking to increase the proportion of its gas consumption from its present level of 4 per cent to 10 per cent by 2020. But Europe also wants it. Russia would like to be able to transit this gas through Russia into Europe.

But though Robson says to be a player in the region requires being aware of the politics of this new great game, he is unconcerned that political risk is particularly an issue for Central Asia.

'There's risk everywhere,' he says, adding that few people expected the proposed new resource taxes in Australia. He says that in all the 20 years he has worked in the region no government has reneged on a deal with him. 'But you have to follow the rules, honour your commitments and demonstrate that you are a reliable partner.'


Central Asia has one of the world's largest reserves of natural gas

According to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy, gas reserves, in cubic metres, in the region amount to: 12tr