Crisis hits Onajite Okoloko’s EROTON, loses OML 18, office sealed as EFCC probes firm over fraud

The Nigerian National Petroleum Company Ltd (NNPCL) has petitioned the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) to probe EROTON Exploration and Production Company Ltd owned by billionaire, Onajite Okoloko over mismanagement of Oil Mining License 18 (OML 18) by the firm.

This is even as the NNPCL has taken over the management of OML 18 from the oil & gas firm.

Net Arana learnt that the persisting inability of Eroton to meet the fiscal obligations of the federal government led to the sealing of Eroton’s head office in Lagos by the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) for more than 12 months due to non-payment of outstanding taxes.

OML 18 is an oil-producing block covering 1,035 square kilometers located south of Port Harcourt and contains eleven oil and gas fields with about 714 MMSTB of oil and condensate and 4.7Tcf of natural gas reserves. Eight fields have been developed, but only four are currently producing. They are Cawthorne Channel, Awoba, Akaso, and Alakiri.

In 2014, EROTON acquired the 45 per cent interest previously owned by Shell (30 per cent), Total (10 per cent), and NAOC (5 per cent) in the then OML 18 NNPC -SPDC JV.

Subsequently, in 2018, EROTON farmed-out equity to Sahara Field Production Limited (16.20 per cent) and Bilton Energy Limited (1.80 per cent). Subsequent to the equity acquisition, EROTON Exploration and Production Company became NNPC Ltd ‘s Joint Venture partner on the OML 18 NNPCL-Eroton JV, and the company was designated as the Operator in accordance with relevant provisions of the Joint Operating Agreement between the parties.

It was learnt that over the years, there have been several concerns over the way and manner the block is operated by EROTON, mostly bothering on transparency of procurement processes, confidence in reported production numbers, transparency of matching cash call payments and administration of JV partners’ funds.

The newspaper reports that in a bid to determine a true and impartial state of affairs and in accordance with clauses 2.2.11, 4.1.1, 6.6 -6.8 of the Joint Operating Agreement, the Management of NNPC Ltdvappointed two Auditors – Messrs KPMG and Tamuno George & Co in July 2020, to carry out a forensic audit on the JV operations.

The forensic audit covered areas of budget process and implementation, governance and compliance and possible collusion with third parties.

In the Audit Report of Tamuno George & Co of July 2020, the Audit Firm discovered that the expenses incurred by the company were excessive and over inflated.

For instance, the Audit Report revealed that two travel and tour contracts awarded to Dees Travels & Tour, and Silhouette Travels and Tours at N300,000,000 both totaling N600,000,000 on call-off basis from 1st Nov 2019- 31st May 2020 appear exorbitant and negates the accounting processes of the company.

The Auditors stated further that travel and tour expense paid for in 2019 (N798,631,103.78); 2018 (N389,495,871.86); and 2017 (N382,984,561.02); whose invoices were provided by EROTON to prove genuineness of travel and to expenses from vendors could not be supported with official receipts.

The Audit Report added, “Travel and tours expenses are excessive and inflated without arm’s length transaction.

“The N38,000,000 contract for Christmas Gift Cards in 2019 awarded to Artee Industries Limited is excessive and not at arm’s length.

“The sum of N439,255,269.49 was paid to Oilserv as an advancement in respect of 30 per cent pipeline installation of N1,169,182,468.20 (EROTON’ s purchase Order)/ $12,001,512.89 (Oilserv Invoice) without specifying the 30 per cent was calculated on purchase order or invoice.

“Oilserv limited was paid N439,255,269.49 for services rendered portrays some elements of compromise and casts doubt on the true value of the contract.”

With similar concerns about the mismanagement of the oil assets by EROTON, findings revealed that another partner in the Joint Venture, Sahara Energy, in a letter dated 21st October 2021, petitioned the Nigerian Upstream Petroleum Regulatory Commission (NUPRC), alleging persistent mismanagement of operations of OML 18 by the Company.

Sahara Energy also wrote the NNPC In a letter dated January 10,2020 raising the alarm about the mismanagement of the OML 18 by EROTON.

As soon as the petition got to the Nigerian Upstream Petroleum Regulatory Commission, the commission quickly constituted a committee to investigate the allegations on EROTON to determine the veracity or otherwise of these allegations.

It was learnt that upon the conclusion of their preliminary investigation, the outcome also indicated mismanagement of the asset by EROTON.

NUPRC was said to have confirmed EROTON’s default in making statutory payments (Oil Royalty, Gas Sales Royalty, Gas flare payments, and Concession rentals), award of contracts to unapproved vendors without recourse to due process.

The regulator also confirmed the sale of gas to a related company without the JV partners’ approval, a valid Gas Sales Agreement, and a proper revenue remittal and accountability framework.

In the letters, Sahara Energy requested for the intervention of NUPRC and the NNPC to avoid catastrophic outcomes for the OML 18 JV partners, the Federal Government, the local communities and the environment.

In the letter to NNPC, Sahara Energy alleged that EROTON has continued to act with impunity, adding that it had become imperative to take decisive steps to ensure compliance, by EROTON, with due processes in order to assure prudent management of the OML 18 asset.

The letter, addressed to the NNPC Group Managing Director which was the former nomenclature of the current Group Chief Executive Officer reads, “Sir, we had specifically informed you that EROTON has continuously failed to officially invite Sahara or frustrated attendance at various meetings at which the 2020 Budget were discussed.

“We thought it useful to express some of our grave reservations (which we have severally – follows:

“Following interactions (at Sahara’s insistence) between Sahara and EROTON with a view to streamlining the 2020 budget and reducing costs, the said budget costs were only partially reduced to $412m from the in initially proposed $517,650,000) even though EROTON could justify only US$205m aggregate expenditure.

“Also, EROTON’s proposed 2020 budget sum of USS412,000,000 (with a view to attain increase in production) is unsupported by tenable underlying technical facts. Thus to provide supporting information to justify $205,000,000 production and evacuation facilities which yields the same desired increase in the production for the asset). This is the amount Sahara is willing to accept despite the fact that the asset, on its own (including the anticipated new production can only support $177,000,000 expenditure.

“Despite repeated requests from Sahara, EROTON is unable to provide any tangible explanations for how it intends to fund this budget cashflow deficit nor has provided any tenable supporting information for the $207,000,000 proposed expenditure above the U$205,000,000 portion of the proposed budget that it has supported.

“Despite numerous requests from Sahara as it is entitled to do pursuant to the OML 18 JOA for EROTON to render account of its stewardship of OML 18 and how it expended monies on behalf of Sahara in the period when EROTON held Sahara’s interest in OML 18 in trust, EROTON has failed to render such account and has instead ignored Sahara’s request for an account of its stewardship.

“It has become glaringly obvious that the asset is being run as a ‘family business’ with very poor governance structures, a total lack of transparency and total lack of value for money for expenditure.”

Following the letter by Sahara Energy, NUPRC constituted a committee to investigate the allegations on EROTON to determine the veracity or otherwise of these allegations.

NUPRC’s investigation revealed that EROTON defaulted in making statutory payments on Oil Royalty, Gas Sales Royalty, Gas flare payments and Concession rentals that fell due in excess of $30,151,491.40 and N210,946,398.17 as of December 2021 which remained unpaid.

It was also revealed that the Audit exercises carried out by NNPC Ltd Internal and appointed External Auditors indicated the award of contracts to unapproved vendors without recourse to due process, amongst several other compliance-related issues.

EROTON has also been selling gas to a related company without the JV partners’ approval, a valid Gas Sales Agreement and proper revenue remittal and accountability, despite several requests by the JV parties.

This action contravenes the provisions of the JOA. It was revealed that NNPCL has initiated reconciliation exercises with EROTON to recover all outstanding unremitted revenue due to the federation from NNPCL’s 55 per cent equity.

As at the last reconciliation of non-remitted proceeds from gas sales, EROTON had sold 46.19 BSCF of gas and is yet to remit NNPCL’s share of the revenue, amounting to a total of $36.88m.

Further findings revealed that from 2016 to date, OML18’s net crude production has significantly fallen from about 30,000 barrels per day to less than 1,000 barrels per day despite the JV Partner’s consistent cash call payments over the same period.

Asides from the insecurity-related impact on the corridor of OML 18 operation, the newspaper reports that that there has been the persistent issue of poor implementation of the JV-approved work programs, including the Alternative Crude Oil Evacuation Project.

EROTON is also said to have been heavily indebted to contractors making it challenging to secure service providers in addition to the financial exposure to the JV.

Other infractions include the non-remittance of domestic gas revenue to joint venture partners, default on tax obligations, and shut-in of production for the last 18 months.

NNPC Writes EFCC, Demands Probe Of EROTON OML 18 Mismanagement

Following the Audit exercise initiated by NNPC Ltd, it was gathered that the management of the National Oil Company wrote several letters to EROTON to resolve the underlying commercial and operational issues.

The NNPC had also commenced appropriate steps to invoke relevant provisions of the JOA to remedy this operational malady of OML 18.

In a letter to the EFCC seen, the NNPC stated that, “While we continue to find solutions within our sphere of influence, We kindly request that the EFCC carry out an independent, in-depth investigation into the allegations against Eroton in the interest of the JV and the Nation at large.”

NNPCL Confirms Report

The NNPC Limited has confirmed the development in a statement made available by THE WITNESS on Monday.

Garba Deen Muhammad, NNPC spokesperson, said the non-operating joint venture (JV) partners of OML 18 has appointed its subsidiary, NNPC Eighteen Operating Limited, as the new operator of OML 18 to replace Eroton.

NNPC said the action was taken to curtail further degradation of the asset and revamp production of oil and gas.

“In order to protect the joint venture (JV) investment in OML 18, the non-operating partners, NNPC Limited (55 percent interest) and OML 18 Energy Limited (“OML 18 Energy” – 16.20 percent interest), jointly owning 71.20 percent equity, removed Eroton as operator of the JV in line with the provisions of the joint operating agreement (JOA). NNPC Limited and OML 18 Energy further appointed NNPC Eighteen Operating Limited as operator of the JV,” the statement reads.

“The change in operatorship has been notified to the Nigerian Upstream Regulatory Commission (NUPRC) and communicated to Eroton. While the key business reasons that made the change in operatorship are compelling, it is publicly available information that production has declined
from thirty thousand barrels per day (30,000 bpd) to zero.”

NNPC said the persisting inability of Eroton to meet the fiscal obligations of the federal government led to the sealing of Eroton’s head office in Lagos by the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) for more than 12 months due to non-payment of outstanding taxes.

It added that Eroton is also not able to “remit to the JV parties the proceeds of gas supplied to its affiliate, Notore”.

NNPC said a number of audits and investigations, including by the “EFCC, NURPC’s work programme audit and others have been undertaken or are ongoing”.

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