* Oilmin says priority to maintain current output levels
* New licence round "depends on situation in Libya"
* Oil prices around $110 a barrel "reasonable"
(Adds quotes, background)
By Marie-Louise Gumuchian
TRIPOLI, Dec 9 Libya could proceed with a new
round of oil exploration and production agreements in the
current transitional period but the priority for now is to
maintain pre-war output levels and future targets, the OPEC
member's new oil minister told Reuters.
The North African country has lifted oil output faster than
analysts had expected to around 1.5-1.6 million barrels per day
(bpd) after last year's war, which ousted Muammar Gaddafi.
"Our priority is to maintain the production at 1.5 million
barrels per day," Abdelbari al-Arusi said in his first major
interview with international media since he was sworn in.
"We now have our target to increase production (by) 100,000
barrels per day for the coming few months, and then we're
planning to drill more wells to increase our production rate."
Libya's National Oil Corporation (NOC) aims to boost oil
output to 1.72 million bpd by end-March but has warned of the
risk that strikes could interrupt production.
The new minister reiterated Libya's target of increasing
output to 2 million bpd by 2015.
Arusi, who is from the western town of Zawiyah, took office
a few weeks ago to replace Abdulrahman Ben Yazza as minister in
an interim government in place until a new round of elections,
which will follow the drafting of a constitution next year.
"Our period here will only be 15 months, and we're going to
work on both sides - short-term and long-term plans," he said.
He said Libya would review its last round of Exploration and
Production Sharing Agreements (EPSA) and "come up with the right
solution for new negotiations in the future".
Until late 2004, Libya's unexplored territory had been
off-limits for decades because of sanctions. In the last bidding
round, after that land opened up and a scramble for acreage
ensued, companies accepted some of the industry's tightest
exploration and production deals.
"This EPSA IV (the last round) will be reviewed for the
interest of the Libyans and for our partners. A lot of companies
have complained about this EPSA IV; we don't like people to
lose, because this is a win-win business," Arusi said.
Asked whether Libya is likely to see another licensing round
within the next 15 months, he said, "Could be, I am not sure,
could be; it depends on the situation here in Libya".
Other senior Libyan oil officials have previously said there
would be no new deals for at least a year.
OIL PRICES "REASONABLE"
Ahead of OPEC's Dec. 12 meeting in Vienna, Arusi described
recent oil prices levels at around $110 a barrel as
"reasonable". Brent crude fell nearly 4 percent last week to
Asked whether he saw any need for OPEC to change its output
target of 30 million bpd at the meeting, he said: "I cannot say
right now. I have to look at it and then we will decide."
Arusi has announced a proposal to separate Libya's
exploration and production activities from refining, shaking up
the running of its key industry by creating two separate bodies
that would be based in Tripoli and Benghazi.
In a move that could be seen as appeasing calls for more
authority in the oil-rich east, the responsibilities of the
Tripoli-based NOC would be carved up. The capital would be the
headquarters for an exploration and production company, and a
separate company headquartered in Benghazi would deal with
refining and petrochemicals.
"We got good feedback from people ... After we get the
approval (from the government and national congress), we will
start immediately," he said. "We are going to do it in phases."
Since the end of the war, workers in the east have called
for more powers in a region accounting for around 80 percent of
Libya's oil wealth. Some have also called for a local company
headquarters in the east as well.
"We have no objection to transfer any company anywhere in
Libya if a feasibility study says so. We have to do it that
way," Arusi said, adding the calls were related to jobs.
He said the proposal to split the NOC would also create a
new company, based in Benghazi and with regional branches, which
would deal with the construction of pipelines and plants.
Officials have spoken of plans to create a protection force
to guard Libya's oil installations, uniting the thousands of
ex-rebel fighters now standing guard after the war. Arusi said
this was the responsibility of the defence and interior
ministries but that progress was being made.
Better security is important to foreign companies operating
in Libya. Foreign oil companies returned after the fighting, but
Libya is still waiting for oil service firms to return in a
significant way to working in the desert fields.
"We think the security situation in Libya is improving. We
are inviting foreign companies to come here to participate in
providing services to the oil industry. We need them," the
Arusi, who was imprisoned for eight years under Gaddafi, was
relatively unknown to the industry before his appointment. He
worked at Libya's Sirte Oil for 16 years, as an engineer and
expert in corrosion at the Marsa El-Brega terminal in the east.
(Additional reporting by Ali Shuaib; Editing by Alison Birrane
and Jane Baird)