The Irrawaddy Business Roundup (March 8, 2014)

By William Boot 8 March 2014

Onshore Shale Oil, Gas Exploration ‘Next on Govt License Agenda’

Plans by Burma’s Ministry of Energy to offer more oil and gas licenses this year might include so-called unconventional resources—hydrocarbons locked in rock.

“[Burma] plans to launch an international onshore licensing round this year that for the first time could include acreage being offered for unconventional exploration,” said the industry newspaper Upstream.

It is thought that 10 or more new blocks will be put up for auction this year, probably after the award of licenses on the 30 offshore blocks for which bids by mostly foreign firms have already been made.

Unconventional exploration includes the process known as fracking, injecting water and chemicals under high pressure into shale rock to release natural gas locked inside.

However, the process requires specialized equipment and skills which only a small number of companies have.

It is unclear how much unconventional hydrocarbon reserves Burma has. Earlier industry reports have identified an area of Karen State around Mapale as being part of the Mae Sot shale oil basin which extends across the border into Thailand.

World Bank Agency to Buy Stake in Rangoon’s Electricity Supply Board

The International Finance Corporation (IFC) is buying a stake in Rangoon’s Electricity Supply Board as part of a plan to help make it a more efficient business.

The board is owned by the Naypyidaw government but is “inefficiently run with system losses that run as high as 27 percent,” said the Wall Street Journal quoting IFC vice president for Asia-Pacific Karin Finkelston.

Aging generating and distribution equipment is blamed for the high wastage of electricity in a city desperate for more energy as it expands, said Finkelston.

The IFC, part of the World Bank Group, will help turn the Rangoon board into a corporate entity and to take an equity stake, the Journal said, although it has not been disclosed how much money will be invested.

“A big part of our goal is to bring in private sector partners,” Finkelston was quoted by the Journal saying.

Last January the IFC said it was working with the Burmese government “to establish a strategy that will promote investment in the power industry.”

“Blackouts remain common and the lack of infrastructure is commonly cited as a major impediment to business,” the Journal said.

Working Conditions in Burma Much Improved but ‘Still an Investor Risk’

Labor laws and protection in Burma have improved significantly since 2011 but the country still presents serious workforce problems for foreign investors, a new assessment said.

“Notwithstanding the historical significance of the political and legal reforms, [Burma] continues to pose some of the highest labor risks in the world,” said a labor standards report by Maplecroft, the British business risk assessors.

“As a result of incredibly poor working conditions, severe deficiencies in workplace inspections, and high rates of forced and child labor, risks abound for investors,” the report said.

Allied to this warning, a separate study by Maplecroft on risks in general in Burma notes: “Businesses will need to monitor operations, work conditions and sub-contractors closely in order to effectively mitigate reputational and operational risks originating with the practices of military-owned entities.”

But, more encouragingly, it adds: “Meanwhile, [Burma’s] sizeable workforce and relatively cheap labor rates are likely to be tapped by manufacturing and consumer goods companies in the coming years.”

Naypyidaw’s Best Energy Bet Is Hydro Dams, Says Swedish Study

Plans are on the table to build 45 new hydroelectric dams on Burma’s rivers, but much of the electricity generated would be cabled out of the country into either China or Thailand, a study by the Institute for Security and Development Policy found.

The Swedish institute said hydropower offered Burma the best opportunity for overcoming its chronic electricity shortage which it said is undermining economic expansion in many areas.

It suggests that hydropower plant development is likely to have the “fastest annual growth rate of all energy sectors” in Burma over the next 20 years, but it will be important to retain as much electricity as possible for domestic use and to reach mutually satisfactory agreements with minority ethnic groups in construction areas.

“The development of hydropower dams should focus on scientific and environmental assessments and community and regional engagement during the planning stages,” the institute study said. “The harnessing of [Burma’s] hydropower potential can and should be looked at as an opportunity for Naypyidaw and traditionally opposed ethnic groups to work together for mutual benefit.”

Poor Electricity Supply ‘Will Limit Growth in Health Industry’

Government plans to expand Burma’s healthcare system by attracting foreign investment will be limited by electricity supply, a study said.

“It will be challenging for the country to push forward with its plans if there are no significant improvements in other areas, such as infrastructure and utilities,” Business Monitor International (BMI) said in an analysis of Burma’s health sector prospects for investors.

“The country has the second-lowest electrification rate in Asia after Cambodia, and is suffering from a deficit in power generation and grid capacity, threatening hospital operations.”

Uncertainties over regulations are also holding back investment in health, it said. “According to Chatree Duangnet, chief operating officer of Thailand-based Bangkok Dusit Medical Services, [Burma] is perceived as the firm’s ‘first priority for foreign investment’, but the firm is waiting for clearer investment laws from the government.

“With the general election due in 2015, we highlight that such uncertainties may persist until after the election,” said London-based BMI.

Two Singapore-based companies, AsiaMedic and Parkway Hospital, signed provisional agreements during 2013 to invest in Burma.