Papua New Guinea has sent a team to Singapore to renegotiate its Papua LNG agreement with French oil major Total SA (TOTF.PA), the nation's petroleum minister said in a statement on Thursday, warning the talks could end "disastrously" for the gas project.
The strong language from minister Kerenga Kua marked an about-turn from a statement 10 days earlier, when he announced the new government would stand by the gas deal agreed by the previous government with Total in April, with some minor changes.
The state negotiating team, which includes Kua, left on Thursday for Singapore and will return early next week, the minister said in a statement released by his office.
"The negotiations could work out well or even disastrously," he said.
Papua LNG, a joint venture between Total, Exxon Mobil Corp and Australia's Oil Search Ltd (OSH.AX), is part of a $13 billion plan set to double the country's exports of liquefied natural gas (LNG).
The Papua LNG gas agreement, key to the project going ahead, came under review when Prime Minister James Marape came to power in May promising to reap more benefits for the impoverished nation from its huge oil, gas and mineral resources.
"Success in the discussions could lead to an early progress of the project. By the same token failure could have very serious ramifications," Kua said.
"This is a risk we take as we try to move in the direction of taking PNG back and making it wealthy."
Total declined to comment ahead of the talks, but its Chief Executive Patrick Pouyanne said on July 25 that he expected the government to respect the gas agreement.
Oil Search said on Thursday it looked forward to "further clarity on the state's position" on the agreement and ways to advance the project.
The government has said it wants to sort out Papua LNG before resuming talks on another gas deal, governing the Exxon-led P'nyang field, which will also feed the $13 billion expansion of LNG exports.
Oil Search is a partner in both Papua LNG and P'nyang.
The renewed uncertainty around the status of the Papua LNG agreement and potential for further delays on the P'nyang deal knocked Oil Search's shares down 6.7% on Thursday.
"We remain of the view that we can't rule out a tougher approach to the Papua gas agreement being taken by the new government, which would present risk of material delay," Credit Suisse analyst Saul Kavonic said in a note.
Analysts have warned that delays on sealing the agreements and any changes to terms could see the gas projects put on the backburner as Total and Exxon may then look to pursue other LNG projects elsewhere in their global portfolios.
Exxon Mobil in PNG was not immediately available for comment.