Colombia to Extend Expiring Production License

Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe said foreign oil companies would be able to negotiate extensions on expiring production contracts for the first time. Uribe said he hoped the move would motivate foreign oil companies to step up investment, especially in already declining fields, which include the 188,000-bpd Cusiana-Cupiagua field operated by BP.

"The petroleum outlook is tough. But the government is making every effort to see a way through it," he said. "The (government) has made the decision to negotiate extensions... to those who are producing petroleum in Colombia in order to guarantee investment."

Ecopetrol has signed dozens of exploration contracts with foreign oil companies in the past two years but says that the firms often don't act on them, partly due to security risks brought on by Colombia's four-decade-old guerrilla war.

Colombia is at risk of becoming a net oil importer within a few years if the country does not make a big oil discovery soon. Ecopetrol has forecast 2003 oil output at about 536,000 bpd against 578,000 bpd last year and a record 815,000 bpd in 1999.

Until now, when foreign firms found oil, they entered into a production "partnership" with Ecopetrol usually for up to 20 years -- splitting revenues down the middle, and paying royalties to the government. At the end of the partnership period, the fields were wholly turned over to Ecopetrol.

Foreign oil firms have repeatedly requested contract extensions, which they said would provide an economic motive to explore for more oil even as existing wells go dry. The government may also offer firms special clauses in new partnership contracts. Details have yet to be worked out for the special clauses.