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US Oil Companies Seek Finds in Russia, Vietnam

WITH doors opening abroad and markets improving at home, United States oil companies are suddenly faced with a wider array of opportunities.

Thirty major oil companies, including some non-US firms, increased spending on exploration and development in the US last year for their first collective annual increase since 1990. Buoyed by the highest natural-gas price in eight years, the firms spent $11.5 billion, up 11 percent, reports Arthur Andersen & Company.

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Depressed by weak oil prices, the companies' foreign spending in 1993 fell for a second year; it was down 6 percent to $18.8 billion. But foreign spending could be resurrected this year by developments in several countries.

Last week, Russia gave the green light to a $10 billion oil and gas project, the first to be carried out by Western companies under Russian law.

Russia is a tempting place for oil companies seeking exploration rights. It is the world's largest oil producer, but its output has plummeted steadily because of mismanagement, lack of equipment, and bureaucratic chaos.

A few small US and Canadian companies that came in under Soviet law already operate in Russia in joint ventures with local organizations. But they are said to be losing money because of Russia's confiscatory taxes.

Those taxes were specifically waived in the deal signed last week in Washington by Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. The project is the development of the Piltun-Astohskoye oil field and the Lunskoye gas field off Russia's Sakhalin Island.

The fields are estimated to hold 750 million barrels of crude oil and other petroleum liquids, as well as 14 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Output could peak at 180,000 barrels of liquids a day and 1.5 billion cubic feet of gas a day.

Production could begin in 2000. Russia will receive more than one-half of the revenue over the life of the project.

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Houston-based Marathon Oil Company heads the project's consortium. Royal Dutch/Shell is a partner, as are two Japanese trading conglomerates and a New Orleans fabricator of offshore facilities for the oil industry.

Marathon and its partners ``should be pleased,'' says Robert Ebel, an expert on the former Soviet Union's oil and gas industry. ``But they haven't reached the end of the line.''

The venture cannot proceed until the Russian parliament's lower house passes an oil-exploration law, perhaps by late summer. Also, the foreign consortium wants the parliament to approve the terms of its production-sharing agreement as another protection, Mr. Ebel says. ``You will know the investor is satisfied when he sets a large chunk of money on the table,'' he says. ``The big bucks have yet to come.''

``This is the biggest single undertaking that we've been in,'' says Marathon spokesman Bill Ryder. ``I think it will open the way for other deals for other companies in Russia.''

Russian President Boris Yeltsin has recently issued decrees to mitigate taxes on oil exports, Ebel says. But even if the decrees are properly interpreted and implemented by bureaucrats - by no means a sure thing - lack of pipelines and port capacity will limit Western oil companies' ability to export oil from Russia, he adds.

Elsewhere on the Pacific Rim, Vietnam has experienced a surge in interest from US companies, which were barred from activity there until President Clinton lifted a 19-year-old trade embargo in February. ``It's a hot area right now,'' says Robert Williams, international editor of the Oil and Gas Journal in Houston.

In April, Mobil Corporation of Fairfax, Va., and partners signed a production-sharing contract with Petrovietnam, the state oil company. Mobil had produced oil offshore what was South Vietnam until 1975, when the erstwhile US ally was overrun by North Vietnam.

Last month, Seagull Energy Corporation in Houston and Occidental Petroleum Corporation in Los Angeles bought stakes in separate exploration ventures off Vietnam. Occidental Petroleum will drill a well in July.

This month, Houston-based Union Texas Petroleum Holdings bought a 25 percent interest in another group's acreage offshore Vietnam. Senior Vice President Arthur Peabody says his firm is ``very excited to have this opportunity.''

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