Sonatrach History

Address:
Djenane El Malik, Hydra
160335 Algiers
Algeria

Telephone: 213-2154-8011
Fax: 213-2154-7700

Website:
Government-Owned Company
Incorporated: 1963 as Société Nationale de Transport et de Commercialisation des Hydrocarbures
Employees: 36,558
Sales: DZD 1.53 billion ($19.58 million) (2002)
NAIC: 211111 Crude Petroleum and Natural Gas Extraction; 211112 Natural Gas Liquid Extraction; 213111 Drilling Oil and Gas Wells; 213112 Support Activities for Oil and Gas Operations

Key Dates:

1963:
The Algerian government creates Société Nationale de Transport et de Commercialisation des Hydrocarbures.
1966:
The name is lengthened to Société Nationale pour la Recherche, la Production, le Transport, la Transformation et la Commercialisation des Hydrocarbures.
1971:
The Algerian government nationalizes all natural gas fields in Algeria.
1981:
The name is changed to Entreprise Nationale Sonatrach.
1988:
Sadek Boussena is named head of Sonatrach.
1995:
Sonatrach forms joint venture In Salah Gas with British Petroleum (BP), the company's first major gas venture with a foreign company.
2001:
Minister of Energy and Mines Chakib Khelil becomes CEO of Sonatrach.
2003:
Sonatrach forms a joint venture with BP to distribute liquefied natural gas to the United Kingdom.

Company History:

Sonatrach, formerly Entreprise Nationale Sonatrach, is the Algerian state-owned oil and gas company. It has control--both direct and indirect--over all aspects of the country's hydrocarbons and has guided Algeria toward its present status as the second largest global supplier of liquefied natural gas. Sonatrach produces about 90 percent of all Algerian export income. It was the fourth largest exporter and producer of gas in the world in 2003. The company hopes to become a major international oil and gas company in the 21st century.

Assuming Control of Algerian Gas and Oil During the Early Years: 1960s-70s

The original governmental decree of December 31, 1963, which created the Algerian state oil company, gave it the title Société Nationale de Transport et de Commercialisation des Hydrocarbures. This was the origin of the acronym Sonatrach. The role of transportation and marketing was given to the company at the date of its creation and was extended on September 22, 1966, making the title of the company still longer in an attempt to summarize all its activities: Société Nationale pour la Recherche, la Production, le Transport, la Transformation et la Commercialisation des Hydrocarbures. In other words, it was a state-owned company with responsibility for all oil activity in Algeria. This responsibility grew during the 1960s and 1970s with the nationalization of many of the country's foreign-held oil assets, though the adoption in July 1981 of a rather less cumbersome title--Entreprise Nationale Sonatrach--coincided with a reduction in the company's direct control over these assets. Sonatrach continued to be responsible for the central features of the Algerian oil and gas industry, but it effectively spun off certain of its operational areas to a number of subsidiaries, with Sonatrach retaining overall coordination for their activities.

The first three decades of Sonatrach's existence divide neatly into three stages of development. The 1960s saw the establishment of the company, with the nationalization of foreign interests and the acquisition of much of the necessary infrastructure, such as pipelines. The 1970s was a decade of consolidation, with Sonatrach embarking on several joint ventures with foreign partners in an effort to increase its exports of liquefied natural gas (LNG). The 1980s saw the company entering into full bloom, reaping the rewards of its previous labors and becoming one of the world's major suppliers of LNG.

When the original Sonatrach was established in 1963 by the government of the newly independent Algeria, its role was essentially limited to building a third export pipeline from Hassi Messaoud to the Arzew oil terminal on the Mediterranean. The gaining of political independence, however, had thrown up the question of how far the economic ties with France should be maintained, and Sonatrach came to play a central role in the course of these discussions. The result of the protracted negotiations was the Franco-Algerian Oil Agreement of 1965, which provided for the Algerian state to take effective part in the exploration and exploitation of the country's hydrocarbons, while also raising the income tax on oil from 50 percent to 55 percent, thus effectively gaining for Algeria a substantial increase in revenues from its oil and gas operations. In recognition of the part played by Sonatrach's representatives in these negotiations, the company's role was extended by a new decree in September 1966 to cover all aspects of the Algerian oil industry.

Over the next two years Sonatrach turned its attention toward those U.S.-owned companies that had petroleum interests in Algeria. In August 1967 the company took over the Algerian assets of the Esso and Mobil companies, and in October 1968 it acquired a 51 percent participation interest in the Getty Oil Company. Sandwiched between these two events was the nationalization in May 1968 of all foreign interests in the Algerian distribution sector, thus establishing a monopoly for Sonatrach in this field.

One of the effects of these decisions was that Sonatrach's share in the Algiers refinery, in which Esso and Mobil had originally held 40 percent, Compagnie Française des Pétroles (CFP) 32 percent, and Shell 24 percent, rose from 4 percent in early 1967 to 56 percent in 1968. The Esso and Mobil interests were taken over in 1967, and the others bought out by 1969. In addition to establishing an infrastructure by nationalizing existing foreign-held assets, Sonatrach also acquired majority stakes in three major oil and gas pipelines between 1963 and 1965. While Algeria's oilfields became the exclusive preserve of Sonatrach, the company also acquired majority participation interests in foreign companies engaged in businesses allied to its central activities, for example, drilling, construction, geophysics, and pipe-laying.

Relations with France worsened steadily in the second half of the decade, however, though France was still buying more than half of all Algerian oil output. The tension came to a head in 1971 when, on February 24, the government completely nationalized all natural gas fields and allied installations and took over all rights to the associated gas--natural gas that overlies and contacts crude oil in a reservoir--from producing oil wells. It brought under state control 51 percent of all of the activities of French petroleum companies, namely 51 percent of the shares, rights, and interests in Algerian oil concessions belonging to these companies. At the same time, it brought its stakes in other foreign companies up to 51 percent. All pipelines that did not already belong to Sonatrach also were nationalized. The French retaliated by banning all imports from Algeria, although this action did not have the expected effect on the Algerian economy, since rising world energy demand had sufficiently opened markets elsewhere.

The main problem that remained, however, was exploration. Since foreign companies were understandably reluctant to invest in exploration when they might not be allowed to reap the rewards, they stayed away, and Sonatrach had not yet built up a stock of technical expertise in its indigenous workforce to do the work itself. The impasse was settled when Sonatrach decided that since the concession agreements had now lapsed a new set of rules would have to be introduced, which would once more encourage foreign companies to put their money and their expertise back into Algerian exploration.

The result was the Fundamental Law on Hydrocarbons, which was promulgated by the Algerian government on April 12, 1971. This law had two main purposes. The first was that it formally abolished the system of concessions and established that all mining titles, as well as the control of all petroleum reserves that might be discovered in the future in any part of Algeria, were transferred to Sonatrach. The second was that it made provision for foreign companies to enter into service contracts or joint ventures with Sonatrach, provided that 51 percent of the assets were held by the state company.

The area in which joint ventures were to be particularly encouraged was exploration, and many foreign companies soon entered into such agreements, notably CFP and Elf Aquitaine of France, Amoco and Sun Oil of the United States, Hispanoil of Spain, Petrobras of Brazil, and Deminex of West Germany.

In addition to the requirement that 51 percent of the share capital be held by Sonatrach, the other conditions under which the joint ventures were signed were fairly straightforward. All gas found was to belong to Sonatrach. If oil was found, 15 percent of the foreign company's exploration costs would be refunded, and Sonatrach would become responsible for 51 percent of future development costs. Foreign partners would be entitled to 49 percent of the crude output after paying taxes, royalties, and other duties, though their term of exploration was limited to 12 years.

In the 1970s, having established its dominant role in the Algerian oil and gas sector, and having come to terms that were acceptable to its joint venture partners, Sonatrach formulated a guiding policy for its development. It saw its future prosperity lying in the exploitation of its natural gas, and thus set itself the task of developing these resources: this would involve subduing foreign demand for crude oil and persuading its clients to purchase its gas instead, while also requiring a great deal of exploration work to be done in the country. Such thinking was based on the fact that Algeria had the fifth largest gas reserves in the world, compared with relatively small and shrinking reserves of oil.

The achievement of the second of these aims, increased exploration activity, continued to elude Sonatrach. For example, of the 447,600 meters drilled in 1977, only 25 percent was for exploration; the main reason for this was the continuing diversion of resources to the development of the two major Saharan drilling fields, the Hassi Messaoud oil and Hassi R'Mel gas fields.

On the other hand, Sonatrach was managing to agree to terms with foreign buyers for its natural gas, and by 1977 several major supply contracts were already in place. The single most important of these was the contract signed in October 1977 with Ente Nazionale Idracarburi (ENI) of Italy, which provided for the export to Italy of some 12 billion cubic meters per year (cm/year) of gas over 25 years through the Trans-Mediterranean pipeline. The cost of the project was estimated at $2.5 billion, and deliveries through the pipeline--which was to run some 1,770 miles from Hassi R'Mel to Bologna in northern Italy--were expected to commence some four years from the signing of the contract.

Another consideration borne in mind by Sonatrach was that Algerian oil reserves, though scarce, were cheaper and easier to export than gas, and so the Algerian government began a policy in the 1970s of using gas wherever possible in its industrial infrastructure, involving the conversion of factories and hospitals to the use of gas. Two other policies initiated by the government--to bring electricity to every home by the year 2000, and to construct a substantial gas grid to supply these homes with gas--also fit in well with Sonatrach's own aims, since the power stations that supplied the Rural Electrification Project were gas-fired. By 1986 it was reported that 83 percent of Algerian homes had electricity, and 35 percent had gas.

A Focus on Refining and Natural Gas: 1980s

Sonatrach's declared exploration and production policy was not successful in practice. Sonatrach consolidated its position in refining. By 1980 it controlled the Algiers refinery, and during the 1980s it developed facilities at Hassi Messaoud, Arzew, and Skikda, making full use of foreign technical expertise, mainly Italian and Japanese. By developing refining capacity Sonatrach was able to reduce the amount of crude exported and to increase the value of the country's trade. By 1984-85, export revenues from oil and gas provided Algeria with $13 billion and accounted for 95 percent of total export earnings.

After 1985, when the shape of the oil and gas markets worldwide altered dramatically, Algeria revised its energy policy in favor of reducing dependence on oil reserves and focusing instead on its natural gas reserves, reckoned to be two-thirds of Algeria's total energy resources.

Until the mid-1980s Algeria found itself in difficulties with respect to its pricing policies, insisting on maintaining contract prices that were way in excess of current market prices, especially Soviet and Dutch prices. Until late 1987 the government insisted that LNG prices be related to crude oil prices and not products, as in most other cases. This worked reasonably well until the price of crude collapsed in early 1986, after which Algeria found itself in dispute with a number of its contract customers. At the same time it saw its revenues falling.

One of the consequences of this was a restructuring of the law governing energy policies at the end of 1986, considerably liberalizing the terms under which foreign companies could participate in exploration projects. The old laws dictated that foreign companies could form joint ventures, but Sonatrach held the majority stake and furthermore held title to the oil or gas. The foreign companies had "operator only" status. If gas was found it was treated as the result of an unsuccessful search for oil, and Sonatrach took 100 percent of the field. One of the consequences of this was that companies of the standing of Texaco and Amoco ceased exploration activities in Algeria.

This kind of intransigence was reflected in the way in which Sonatrach negotiated its major contracts. Despite the need for supplies of LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) and LNG by a variety of countries, including Italy, Yugoslavia, and the United States, contracts repeatedly hit problems in the late 1980s as Algeria attempted to maintain its upper hand in a falling market.

This led to what was seen as a fundamental reversal in Algerian export policy. By the end of 1987, a number of changes were becoming apparent. The most interesting was reflected in a contract finally signed with the U.S.-registered Trunkline LNG Company, a subsidiary of Panhandle Eastern Corporation, in which Sonatrach held a 12 percent stake, which was understood to have incorporated the most flexible terms seen out of Algeria. In effect there was no contract price; rather, prices were to be determined on the basis of conditions in the end-use markets with the proceeds being split on a predetermined basis between Sonatrach and Trunkline. To a large extent, this deal was seen as evidence of Sonatrach's deep concern over its position in the international gas market, its substantial surplus in LNG capacity, and its desire to develop new markets to utilize this spare capacity more fully.

By 1988 there was a widespread belief that Algeria had decided to accept commercial reality after years of sticking to a high price strategy, which had resulted in the loss of markets. Early that year it became apparent that the country was going to be marketing LNG on a worldwide basis and with some intensity. One consequence of this was the opening of branches in the United States and London, as well as the development of a Tokyo office.

Until the summer of 1988 more than half its LNG capacity of 30.8 billion cubic meters a year was idle as a result of difficulties with export contracts. Since then Sonatrach dropped its insistence on treating existing customers less favorably than new ones, a practice that caused a long dispute with Boston-based Distrigas, and revived exports to the United States at competitive prices. Sonatrach also reopened the world's first commercial LNG trade, between Algeria and the United Kingdom, with spot cargoes--cargoes sold at the going rate, not a forward price. In addition, it developed a new and potentially exciting relationship with Japan and redefined its relationship with its largest customer, Gaz de France.

The government appointed a new head of Sonatrach, Sadek Boussena, in the summer of 1988--appointed minister of energy as well in November 1988--and his influence was felt in the new methods noted in negotiations. Part of this change of policy had--as always in Arab nations--a political basis. With LNG grossly overpriced, a number of customers, including U.S. utilities and Gaz de France itself, simply paid some 83¢ per million British thermal units less than they were invoiced, arguing that they would not pay over the accepted market price. The 1988 riots in Algiers underlined the high price the country was paying for the austerity induced by the sharp decline in its foreign income--more than 90 percent of which derived from its oil and gas income.

Since then, the Algerians managed to restore a number of crucial relationships in the United States and Europe and seemed set on a course of action that would make Sonatrach a crucial element in several nations' LNG stockpiles. During 1989 Sonatrach exported a record 17.2 billion cubic meters (cm) of gas as LNG, or about 12.3 million tons. Export capacity stood at around 25 billion cm, but Sonatrach's deputy general manager, Mustapha Faid, announced that this was to be substantially expanded during the 1990s, to 33 billion cm by 1992, and to between 60 billion and 80 billion cm by 2000.

By the end of 1990 Algeria had about 3.25 trillion cm of natural gas reserves, placing it among the top seven in the world. As part of this expansion Sonatrach planned to construct a new LNG unit of about five billion cm capacity. Meanwhile, it would also be expanding the country's LPG capacity to allow exports of seven million tons annually, up from the 1990 level of about four million tons. In addition, a new, fourth pipeline to mainland Italy via Tunisia and Sicily was being planned, while there was a more tentative plan to build a pipeline through Morocco and across the Strait of Gibraltar to the Iberian Peninsula.

Faid also announced impending contracts with U.S. and French companies to refurbish and expand gas liquefaction plants at the ports of Arzew and Skikda. In February 1990, a cooperation agreement was signed between Sonatrach and Total Compagnie Française des Pétroles (formerly CFP) covering upstream and downstream work, and in November 1989 these companies signed two production-sharing contracts for liquid hydrocarbons at the same time as Shell and Sonatrach signed a deal to study cooperation in the natural gas sector. The main thrust of Sonatrach's expansion plans, however, became apparent in 1991, with Sonatrach running a campaign to attract both producing and consuming companies to participate in joint ventures for the production and separation of around four million tons a year of LPG, which would double the production capacity.

Cooperation with Other Countries Leading to Growth: 1990s

Sonatrach, in its quest to become one of the top oil and gas producers in the world, adopted an aggressive growth campaign in the 1990s. In April 1996 the Algerian government implemented a program designed to increase the country's crude oil production capacity to 1.5 million barrels per day by 2001. To reach this goal the government planned to allow for the drilling of 300 exploration wells, half of those allotted to Sonatrach and the other half to foreign investors.

Cooperation with foreign companies rose steadily in the 1990s, and by 1999 Algeria had 25 foreign companies conducting business in the country. Among these companies were Anadarko Petroleum Corporation, which had discovered two oilfields, Atlantic Richfield (Arco), Phillips Petroleum, Occidental Petroleum Corporation, and Mobil. Sonatrach was involved in a joint venture with Anadarko, Lasmo, and Maersk Oile of Denmark to develop the Hassi Berkine South oilfield, and Block 404 of the field came onstream in May 1998, producing 65 million barrels per day by 2000. In addition, Sonatrach formed a joint venture with British Petroleum in 1995 to develop seven gas fields in the In Salah region. The joint venture, In Salah Gas, marked Sonatrach's first major gas partnership with a foreign company and was set to come onstream in 2002.

Other joint ventures in which Sonatrach was involved by the late 1990s included an exploration agreement with Oryx Energy Company worth $28.8 million, a deal with Compañia Española de Petróleos, S.A. (CEPSA) of Spain to develop the Ourhoud oilfield, and a production-sharing agreement with Arco and Elf Aquitaine of France to produce oil at Rhourde El Baguel, the second largest oilfield in Algeria. In the summer of 1998 Amoco, prior to its merger with BP, made a $900 million deal with Sonatrach to develop gas fields in In Amenas in southern Algeria.

Sonatrach also was involved in pipeline joint ventures in the 1990s: with Spain's Enagas, Sonatrach built the Maghreb-Europe Gas (MEG) line to Spain. Construction began in the early 1990s, and the portion to Portugal came onstream in March 1997. Sonatrach also worked on the Trans-Mediterranean (Transmed) line linking Algeria's Hassi R'Mel field, Algeria's largest natural gas field, to Mazzara del Vallo in Sicily, Italy.

On the Road to Globalization in the New Millennium

As Sonatrach headed into the new millennium, it had hopes of boosting its presence and becoming a major player in the global oil and gas market. The company entered into a five-year development plan worth $19.2 billion and planned to spend 62 percent on oilfield development, 17 percent on pipeline construction, 13 percent on exploration, and the rest on other projects, including gas liquefaction.

One key to Sonatrach's success, according to Chakib Khelil, Algeria's minister of energy and mines since 1999 and Sonatrach's head since 2001, was to change Sonatrach's status and to free the state-run company from complete government control. Khelil championed the hydrocarbons law that would have put an end to the government's monopoly of Sonatrach, but the law was placed on hold in early 2003, making energy reform unlikely. Still, the government claimed it hoped to liberalize Sonatrach and set up Alnaft, an agency with the responsibilities of negotiating energy contracts with foreign companies and offering exploration and development deals.

The Ourhroud field came onstream at the beginning of 2003, bringing Sonatrach closer to realizing its goal of becoming an international powerhouse. Initial production was at 75,000 barrels of oil per day, but the company expected to boost output to 230,000 barrels per day within a month or two. Total oil production capacity was expected to increase from 1.1 million barrels to 1.3 million barrels per day with Ourhroud.

Joint ventures continued and were among Sonatrach's strategies for diversifying its holdings and expanding internationally. In 2000 Sonatrach entered a major joint venture with CEPSA and others to build MedGaz, a 450-kilometer gas pipeline running from Algeria to Spain. The pipeline was set to begin distributing gas in 2006. MedGaz would greatly increase the export possibilities of Algerian gas to members of the European Union. In 2002 Sonatrach and Shell formed a partnership to explore and develop oil and gas interests, and in March 2003 Sonatrach formed the joint venture Helison with Germany's Linde Engineering. The venture's plan was to construct a helium plant in Algeria. Construction was estimated at $87 million.

In October 2003 Sonatrach formed a joint venture with BP to distribute LNG to the United Kingdom. Under terms of the agreement, shipment would begin in 2005, with the possibility of extending distribution to other markets, including the United States. Import capacity was estimated at 3.3 million tons per year over the course of 20 years. The bulk of the LNG would come from Algeria, which was prepared--the Ohanet project, a joint venture with BP Billiton, came onstream in October and had the capacity to pump 7.3 billion cubic meters per year; the In Salah venture was to be operational in 2004; and In Amenas was to come onstream in 2006.

Sonatrach dabbled elsewhere in the world as well. In Peru the company was a member of a consortium along with Argentine firms Techint and Pluspetrol to sell and distribute gas in Peru. The venture was known as the Camisea project. Sonatrach also had plans to develop the Tuba field in southern Iraq, and it had dealings in Sudan and Yemen in the early 2000s. In 2003 Sonatrach entered into an agreement with China National Oil and Gas Exploration and Development Corporation to construct a new refinery in Algeria. The company also exported oil to Asia, and in October 2003 it began shipping Saharan Blend crude oil to China and Thailand, bringing its shipments to Asia up to three million barrels in October.

In May 2003 Sonatrach gained a new CEO with the appointment of Djamel Eddine Khene. Khene had worked at Sonatrach since 1971 and as vice-president of exploration and production prior to his promotion. Khene took over for Khelil, who continued in his position as minister of energy and mines. Unfortunately, Khene died two months later, in July. In October Sonatrach veteran Mohamed Meziane was appointed CEO. Meziane had been with Sonatrach since 1967.

Exploration brought positive results. In the spring of 2003 Sonatrach, along with partners Anadarko, Lasmo, and Maersk, made an oil discovery near Hassi Messaoud. Sonatrach reported that initial tests yielded output of 2,689 barrels of oil and 4.72 million cubic feet of gas per day. Another significant discovery was made in November 2003, this time in the Berkine North East field of the Berkine Basin. Other Berkine Basin discoveries included wells in Hassi Berkine North East and Sif Fatima South West.

Sonatrach reported a net income of DZD 175 million for 2002. For the first six months of 2003, Sonatrach earned $12 billion, and its export earnings rose 46 percent compared with the same period in 2002.

Growth and expansion remained Sonatrach's goals, and the company hoped to double production and exports by 2020. By 2010 Sonatrach wished to elevate its reserves by 20 percent and to increase gas liquefaction capacity by a quarter. In 2003 Sonatrach's oil output was some 1.2 million barrels per day. Capacity was expected to increase to 1.5 million barrels per day by 2005 and two million barrels per day by 2010. Part of Sonatrach's strategy was to make foreign investments to boost its reserves. CEO Khene told Middle East and North Africa Today in July 2003, "Sonatrach is pursuing a change in strategy. It does not want to be limited to one source of hydrocarbons, regardless of how reliable and promising they may be." In 2002 Algeria was the 11th biggest supplier of oil and gas; the company hoped to work its way into the top ten by the end of the decade.

Principal Subsidiaries: Société de Transport du Gaz Naturel d'Hassi-Er-r'Mel Arzew (SOTHRA); Société Algérienne de Geophysique (ALGEO); Société de la Raffinerie d'Alger; Sonatrach International Holding Company (British Virgin Islands); Helison (49%); Galsi SpA (40%); ENAGEO; Entreprise National de Forage; Entreprise Nationale d'Industrie Petrochimique; NAFTEC; Reganosa (Spain); ENAFOR (Algerian National Enterprise for Drilling); GCB; ENSP (National Enterprise for Well Services).

Principal Competitors: BP p.l.c.; Compañia Española de Petróleos, S.A.; Repsol YPF, S.A.

Further Reading:

  • "Algeria's Sonatrach Announces 2020 Development Goals," Middle East and North Africa Today, July 4, 2003.
  • "Algeria--Triumph of the Old Guard," Middle East Economic Digest, January 24, 2003.
  • Buckman, David, "Algeria--New Search Gets Under Way," Petroleum Economist, July 1989.
  • Leblond, Doris, "The Dual Pattern of Algeria's Gas Contracts," Petroleum Economist, May 1988.
  • Moran, Jacinta, "Khelil Maps Algeria's Oil Production Growth," Platts Oilgram News, July 7, 2003, p. 3.
  • Shirkhani, Nassir, "Old Hand to Take Reins," Upstream, May 16, 2003.
  • Wright, John, "Sonatrach--Key to Algeria's Future," Petroleum Economist, January 1977.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 65. St. James Press, 2004.