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Timor-Leste buys into the Sunrise Oil and Gas Project

30 October 2018. Updated 8 November 2018

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Most of the graphics on this page can be enlarged by clicking on them.

The Greater Sunrise oil and gas field in the Timor Sea has been the subject of exploration, controversy, and negotiations since it was discovered in 1974. In particular, the question of where to liquefy the natural gas -- converting it into LNG which can be shipped to overseas customers -- has been vociferously debated since Indonesia was forced out of Timor-Leste in 1999.  La'o Hamutuk has followed the issue since 2000, publishing facts and analysis to advocate for Timor-Leste's national sovereignty and for policy decisions which advance the well-being of the people of Timor-Leste.

History and background

In 2008, La'o Hamutuk published a book Sunrise LNG in Timor-Leste: Dreams, Realities and Challenges, which is on-line in English and Bahasa Indonesia, with a summary in Tetum. The report includes a history of relevant events from 1970 through 2008. In 2008 we also published a primer on LNG Basics and an article on potential benefits from Sunrise LNG in Timor-Leste.  Our previous web page on the Sunrise project discusses events through 2015.

Sunrise is also a key factor in the Tasi Mane project, especially the proposed gas liquefaction (LNG) plant in Beacu.

The Sunrise controversy is entangled in the troubled history of maritime boundary negotiations between Timor-Leste and Australia. Follow this link for information and documents on events from 2012 to 2016, or this one for developments since then. which includes many more articles and links for the process leading up to signing the Boundary Treaty on 6 March 2018.


Barossa also wants Darwin LNG

Until 2015, the Sunrise Joint Venture's preferred option was to process the gas at a floating LNG plant, new technology which they believed was the most profitable. However, as Bayu-Undan nears the end of its productive life, they now want to pipe Sunrise gas to Darwin and liquefy it in the soon-to-be-available existing LNG plant there, which is majority-owned by ConocoPhillips. According to the analysis done for the boundary Conciliators, this would be much more profitable than processing the gas in Timor-Leste.

However, the time window for this option is limited because ConocoPhillips, Barossa project would also like to tap into the Bayu-Undan pipeline and use the Darwin LNG plant.

On 8 March, after the boundary treaty was signed, ConocoPhillips and Santos began promoting Barossa more assertively, perhaps to pressure Timor-Leste's government to quickly agree to Sunrise gas being processed in Darwin. Six weeks later, ConocoPhillips announced that Barossa is beginning Front-End Engineering Design, and a contract for the design was awarded in June 2018. The Barossa joint venture hopes to make a Final Investment Decision by the end of 2019 and bring gas to Darwin by 2023.

The Sunrise project is operated by Woodside (Australia), which has a 33.44% share in the project shared with joint venture partners ConocoPhillips (USA, 30%), Royal Dutch Shell (UK/Netherlands, 26.56%) and Osaka Gas (Japan, 10%). They estimate that the field contains 5.13 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas and 226 million barrels of condensate (oil), which some analysts believe will sell for about $50 billion. After paying for capital investment, operating costs and company profit, this might generate $5-20 billion in tax and royalty revenue to Timor-Leste. If Timor-Leste becomes a part-owner of the project, we will share in the profits, as well as in the responsibility for investment. It is not clear that the benefits to Timor-Leste will be more than the costs.

For many years, Sunrise has been stalled because Timor-Leste’s government has insisted that its natural gas be piped to Timor-Leste, where it will be cooled until it becomes a liquid (Liquefied Natural Gas or LNG; see 2008 primer) that can be loaded onto tanker ships and sold to overseas customers.  However, the Joint Venture companies believe that other ways of making LNG – either through a pipeline to Australia (Darwin LNG or DLNG) or on a floating platform above the field (FLNG) – will be more profitable and less risky. ConocoPhillips wants to process the gas in Darwin, perhaps because it is the principal owner of the soon-to-be-idle LNG plant there (see box at right); they persuaded Shell, Woodside and Osaka Gas to support their position. Before that, the Joint Venture had preferred FLNG; Timor LNG was always the third choice for all the partners.

Timor-Leste’s government believes that spinoff jobs, contracts and local economic development on the Tasi Mane coast will more than compensate for the higher costs and risks of bringing the gas here, but this view is not shared by Australia, the Sunrise Joint Venture, or the UN Conciliation Commission that facilitated the Boundary Treaty. La’o Hamutuk and experts we have consulted are not convinced that the benefits to Timor-Leste are greater than the costs, and we have repeatedly asked the managers of the project for the assumptions and data that make them so optimistic (see below).

2018 Boundary Treaty changes ownership, establishes Sunrise special regime


Before and After the Boundary Treaty


Until the maritime boundary was settled in 2018, the Sunrise and Troubadour fields (yellow circle) were 20% in the Joint Petroleum Development Area (JPDA) defined by the 2002 Timor Sea Treaty, and 80% in disputed waters administered by Australia.


Under the new boundary, there is no JPDA and about 70% of Greater Sunrise is in Timor-Leste's territory.


The above map is from the now-obsolete 2003 International Unitization Agreement (IUA), showing part of Greater Sunrise (left of the black diagonal line) inside the JPDA, and the rest in waters attributed to Australia under the CMATS treaty. It was covered by four Production Sharing Contracts (purple numbers), but the orange and green areas were to be developed as a single unitized project.


Under the 2018 Boundary Treaty, the JPDA and IUA cease to exist. A single contract will cover the entire field, even though approximately 70% of it is in Timor-Leste and 30% in Australia.

On 3 March 2018, Forbes published Overblown Expectations for East Timor's Greater Sunrise Oil and Gas, which estimates that Timor-Leste could receive about $8 billion in revenues if the gas is processed through a pipeline to Darwin, but that a pipeline to Timor-Leste would make the project economically unviable. A few days later, the Australian Financial Review and others expected that the new treaty would support the Sunrise gas project (in Darwin).

On the eve of the 6 March signing, ABC revealed a leaked letter Xanana had written to the Conciliation Commission the week before. Mr. Gusmão blasted the Commission's "lack of impartiality" for comparing the Darwin and Timor LNG options. A few days later, The Australian wrote that Xanana Gusmao’s Timor Sea rant is an own goal [score for the other team] for his needy nation.

The Treaty between Timor-Leste and Australia Establishing their Maritime Boundaries in the Timor Sea was signed in New York on 6 March 2018. The Permanent Court of Arbitration, which served as the secretariat for the conciliation process, issued a 50-page press package, including the 30 August 2017 Comprehensive Package Agreement (which has an "Approach on the Greater Sunrise Development Concept" and an action plan), the text of the treaty (with five annexes) (also Portuguese), and a Paper on the Comparative Development Benefits of Timor-LNG and Darwin-LNG.

The Treaty replaces the Timor Sea Treaty and the Sunrise International Unitization Agreement, defining the limits of the national territories of both nations for the first time. However, Sunrise is still on both sides of the border; the new line crosses the field in an arbitrary location, chosen to put approximately 70% of it in Timor-Leste's territory and 30% in Australia's. This boundary may be readjusted after Timor-Leste and Indonesia settle their maritime border and Sunrise has been emptied and decommissioned. Although negotiators were unable to reach agreement on where Sunrise gas would be processed, the Treaty establishes a Greater Sunrise Special Regime to govern its joint development.

On 21 March, La'o Hamutuk published a comprehensive article The Timor-Leste-Australia Maritime Boundary Treaty (also PDF, abridged blog and Tetum). International media covered the signing extensively, and many articles are linked to from our web page on the treaty process. Although the negotiators had hoped to resolve the Sunrise question before the Treaty was signed, they were unable to. Because Sunrise straddles the boundary established by the new treaty, Timor-Leste will receive 70% of the government revenues from extracting Sunrise oil and gas if the gas is processed in Timor-Leste, and 80% if it is processed in Australia.

In May 2018, the Conciliation Commission published a comprehensive Report with 28 Annexes, describing how the Conciliators got Timor-Leste and Australia to agree on a maritime boundary treaty. The Commission recommended "that the Parties continue their discussions regarding the development of Greater Sunrise with a view to reaching agreement on a concept for the development of the resource."

Like any treaty, this one needs to be ratified by both Parliaments. Australia began its process in late March, with a National Interest Analysis. Their Parliamentary Committee received many submissions, including from La'o Hamutuk (also Tetum), and published its report in August.

Although Timor-Leste's National Parliament has not yet begun its ratification process, La'o Hamutuk sent them an unsolicited submission (Tetum original) on 6 August recommending, among other things, that Government, Parliament and the public should conduct a rigorous and objective assessment of the Tasi Mane Project's fiscal, social, economic and environmental costs, benefits and risks before spending more money on it.

Timor-Leste will buy out ConocoPhillips for $350 million

On 25 June 2018, Natural Gas Daily reported that East Timor restarts Sunrise talks after elections. On 22 July, the Australian Financial Review cited Woodside CEO Peter Coleman calling for a 'fresh start' on the Sunrise LNG negotiations. A few days later, Timor-Leste government news agency Tatoli reported that Timor-Leste was preparing to bring the Sunrise gas pipeline to its south coast. On 27 July, Timor-Leste's Parliament approved the new Government's program, which includes Sunrise LNG in Timor-Leste. On 21 August, Timor-Leste's Council of Ministers reappointed Xanana Gusmão as Special Representative for concluding the treaty ratification and the Greater Sunrise agreements.

On 6 August, Interfax Natural Gas Daily reported that Timor-Leste is considering buying out the oil companies who hold the Greater Sunrise contract. On 13 September, the Australian Financial Review reported that Timor-Leste was considering bidding US $5 billion to buy out ConocoPhillips share of the Greater Sunrise field.

On 28 September, negotiators from the Timor-Leste government and ConocoPhillips agreed that Timor-Leste will pay $350 million to purchase ConocoPhillips’ share of the Joint Venture to develop the Greater Sunrise oil and gas field. Timor-Leste will own 30% of this project, together with Woodside, Shell and Osaka Gas. On behalf of the state, TimorGAP will participate in project decisions, be responsible for 30% of the investment, and be entitled to 30% of the company share of the profits. The deal was announced by ConocoPhillips and by Timor-Leste, and La'o Hamutuk wrote an article (also Tetum) explaining its significance for the nation and describing the next steps to bring the gas pipeline to Timor-Leste.

GMN TV was given exclusive access to the signing ceremony, and produced a 22-minute program (29 MB Tetum video). On 5 October, the lead story on their evening news was La'o Hamutuk and FONGTIL questioning whether the deal is good for Timor-Leste (9MB Tetum video).

The buyout was widely covered in international media, including Timor-Leste buys ConocoPhillips stake in Greater Sunrise consortium (LUSA, 28/9), East Timor buys ConocoPhillips’ Greater Sunrise share for A$484m (Australian Financial Review, 30/9), Woodside considers options as ConocoPhillips sells Sunrise LNG stake to East Timor Government (West Australian, 1/10), ConocoPhillips sells stake in Sunrise gas field to East Timor (Reuters, 1/10) and Timor-Leste buys A$484 million stake in Greater Sunrise fields and pushes for LNG pipeline (also radio broadcast) (ABC News 2/10).

The media soon became more analytical: Timor-Leste one step closer to LNG ambitions but hurdles remain (Platts S&P Global, 2/10), East Timor stake buy brings Sunrise gas field a step closer (Reuters, 2/10), Timor-Leste determined on Sunrise, (Upstream, 4/10) and Why Timor-Leste took its A$484 million Greater Sunrise gamble (Crikey, 9/10).

What else has to happen to bring the pipeline to Timor-Leste?


Learning from experience


Papua New Guinea had high hopes that their $19 billion LNG project would greatly increase government revenues, jobs, and household incomes, as predicted in a 2008 study by the ACIL Australian consultants for Exxon.



Unfortunately, after four years of operation, it has become clear that these predictions were wildly optimistic, as described in two reports by Jubilee Australia (click on a cover to download a report).

TimorGAP also hired ACIL, whose 2016 report about the Tasi Mane project predicts major benefits to Timor-Leste. Should Timor-Leste risk billions of dollars without deeper analysis?

Timor-Leste buying participation in Greater Sunrise is one step in a long process which may eventually bring a gas pipeline to Beaçu. Although many Timorese citizens are proud of our political leaders for persuading or paying the oil companies to accept this position, the issue has financial, economic, environmental and social consequences which will be longer-lasting and more impactful than temporary patriotic emotion.  It is not yet clear that the Sunrise pipeline will be good for the people of Timor-Leste. The nation needs and deserves a detailed, objective analysis, with complete public information, about the costs, benefits, risks, and impacts of the entire Greater Sunrise and Tasi Mane projects before we disburse billions of dollars of public funds to oil companies, contractors, brokers and other individuals and companies.

La’o Hamutuk has serious doubts that such an analysis will prove that the benefits of bringing the Sunrise pipeline to Timor-Leste are enough to justify its huge costs, risks and social impacts.  But even if they are, the recent agreement to purchase ConocoPhillips’ 30% share is insufficient to ensure that the pipeline will come here.

  1. Under the Sunrise Joint Venture rules, each other partner – Woodside, Shell, or Osaka Gas – has the right to “pre-empt” another buyer. In other words, if ConocoPhillips wants to sell its 30% share, one of these companies could purchase it to prevent it from going to someone else. Media reports indicate that Woodside may exercise this power, which would prevent Timor-Leste from buying the share from ConocoPhillips. However, on 6 November Xanana (Tetum video) showed reporters letters Timor-Leste had received from the companies which, according to LUSA, confirm that the companies will not exercise their pre-emption rights.

  2. Australian and Timor-Leste government regulators will have to approve the purchase. The sales contract and Joint Venture agreement must also be approved by the Council of Ministers and reviewed by the Audit Court. On 10 October, Timor-Leste's Council of Ministers approved a Government Resolution to approve the contract acquiring ConocoPhillips' share of Sunrise and transferring those rights to TimorGAP.

  3. Timor-Leste will have to pay $350 million to ConocoPhillips early next year, sort of a down payment on much larger financial obligations in the future (see #5 below).  The $350 million – more than twice as much as Timor-Leste spends each year to educate our children – will be taken out of the Petroleum Fund as part of the 2019 State Budget which the Government will propose to Parliament in November, according to TimorGAP President Francisco Monteiro in Tatoli and Independente.

  4. Even after Timor-Leste owns  a 30% share of Greater Sunrise, it will need to persuade Shell and Woodside to approve a pipeline to Timor-Leste, which may reduce the profitability of the project. Most Joint Ventures require unanimous approval for a major decision like this one.

    Without ConocoPhillips, the Sunrise JV will have less financial resources and technical and administrative expertise, and other partners may ask for compensation to accept the increased cost and technical and security risks of a deep-water pipeline to a new LNG plant in Beaçu, as well as the additional infrastructure and regulatory support that it will require. On 18 October, the Australian Financial Review quoted Woodside executives that they prefer to invest in the upstream development at the field itself, rather than in the pipeline and LNG plant, as elaborated by Interfax. A few days later, Xanana responded that Woodside's reluctance to invest will be better for the project.

    Potential buyers for the LNG will also have to approve the development option and will want assurances that the price, continuity of supply, and security of operation meet their needs.

  5. Timor-Leste will need to pay at least 30% of the capital costs to develop the Sunrise field, which will be several billion dollars. This investment is not only for the pipeline and LNG plant, but for drilling exploratory and production wells, building the infrastructure to process oil and gas at the field (probably including a Floating Production Storage and Offloading [FPSO] vessel to store and sell oil from Sunrise), operational infrastructure, and other costs. If this money is borrowed, Timor-Leste will have to pay it back with interest.

    Although everyone hopes that this investment can be recovered a few years after the field starts production in 6-12 years, the money will need to be paid up front, and recovery is not certain. On 22 October Xanana Gusmão told a television audience (1.5 MB Tetum video) that Sunrise will start making money for Timor-Leste in 2026.

  6. After the partners and governments agree and the capital investment financing has been secured, the Joint Venture has to design and build the project, subject to regulatory and environmental approval and best practice.

Many in Timor-Leste celebrate, regardless of costs


The onshore LNG plant is part of the Government's vision for a Tasi Mane petroleum industry corridor in southwestern Timor-Leste.


If a pipeline is built to Timor-Leste, it will have to be routed across the deep Timor Trough and will land near Beaçu, as the map below from TimorGAP shows.

Chief Negotiator Xanana Gusmão returned to a hero's welcome in Timor-Leste on 8 October, calling on everyone to unite to bring the Sunrise pipeline to Timor-Leste, which he said it was clear would happen.

In mid-October, the Wall Street Journal published Tiny East Timor Bets Big on Oil and Gas, and ABC Radio interviewed La'o Hamutuk's Carly Munnelly about the project (audio).

On 22 October, Xanana was interviewed in GMN-TV's Grand Intervista program about g7+ and the Sunrise buyout (55-minute Tetum video on YouTube; Sunrise discussion starts 21 minutes in). To facilitate access, you can download a lower-resolution video (34 MB) of the Sunrise portion. GMN's evening news also broadcast a two-minute excerpt of the key points (1.5 MB video). In response to those who question the cost or feasibility of the project, the Chief Negotiator said "I don't care" and encouraged viewers to trust that "I will win" and prove the naysayers wrong, as he did in the struggle for Timor-Leste's independence.  A few weeks later, he acknowledged that Sunrise could cost Timor-Leste $2.5 billion for the upstream work  that the joint venture will do, plus another $5 billion for the pipeline and LNG Plant.

Timor-Leste's Government is preparing the General State Budget for 2019. On 22 October, the acting Minister of Finance announced that the budget will be larger than expected, and TimorGAP President Francisco Monteiro said it will include $350 million for Sunrise buyout, as well as $24 million more for the Ministry of Petroleum and Minerals, twice as much as MPM's average allocation during the past six years.

Timor-Leste will have to invest at least ten billion dollars more (and perhaps much more) in capital expenditures to implement the Sunrise and Tasi Mane projects, and 90% of these costs have never been mentioned in published State Budget forecasts, which go through 2023. La'o Hamutuk has roughly estimated them as follows, in millions of U.S. dollars:

During the last week of October 2018, the first LNG shipment left the new Ichthys LNG plant in Darwin, two years late and $6 billion over budget. Although Ichthys is somewhat larger than Greater Sunrise, its $40 billion capital investment cost illustrates the scale of this kind of project. With INPEX construction finished and the workers returned to their homes elsewhere, Darwin is experiencing economic problems, as exemplified by a sharp drop in house values.

Proposal to weaken governance to grease the Sunrise buy-in

On 22 October, Timor-Leste's government asked Parliament to amend Petroleum Activities Law no. 13/2005 (official Portuguese) which was enacted after extensive consultation and has provided governance, transparency and checks and balances over the country's contracting with oil companies for the last 13 years. The proposed amendment (Portuguese and English, with explanations) would allow the State to participate in a joint venture with a share larger than 20%, as well as eliminating preventive oversight of petroleum-related contracts by the Audit Chamber of the High Administrative, Tax and Audit Court. As explained by Government, this amendment is intended to smooth the way for Timor-Leste's participation in the Greater Sunrise project.

Parliament was asked to consider it during a four-day holiday weekend, and the process is being rushed through. If it passes, it will be retroactive to 27 September, before the buyout deal was signed with ConocoPhillips.

The first five of the six new clauses in the law would remove a perceived 20% limit in the portion of a petroleum project that Timor-Leste or its public companies can own. However, this does not seem necessary, as that limit has never constrained the State from owning more than 20% of a project. TimorGAP is already a 50% partner (with Timor Resources) in two onshore Production-Sharing Contracts (PSCs), the 100% owner of PSC S0-15-01 in the exclusive maritime area, and a 24% partner (with Eni and Inpex) of PSC JPDA 11-106 in the offshore Joint Petroleum Development Area. There is no 20% limit in current law for Timor-Leste buying into a project; that number only applies to participation which must be written into a new Production-Sharing Contract to allow the State to opt-in to a petroleum project without paying.

Many believe that the real reason behind this amendment is to remove Audit Court oversight not only of petroleum contracts but of loan agreements and other "contracts ... for the conduct of [petroleum operations]" which will be signed as the Sunrise project moves forward. Some Timor-Leste politicians have become impatient with the governance and transparency requirements written in to the State's petroleum laws. In recent years, the Audit Court has knocked back the $719 million procurement contract for the Suai Supply Base (although this was overturned on appeal), and a contract to borrow $50 million from the Chinese Ex-Im Bank to rehabilitate Dili's drainage system. However, ZEESM's 2014 enabling legislation exempted its contracts from prior Audit Court review, so there is an unfortunate precedent.

Since Timor-Leste's current creditors are not interested in lending money for the Tasi Mane project, it is likely that Timor-Leste will seek financing of the multi-billion Sunrise and Tasi Mane investments from China, which has led to concerns about a "debt trap."  In other countries, including Sri Lanka and Angola, the difficulties in repaying loans from China have increased poverty, reduced democracy and sacrificed national sovereignty -- consequences reminiscent of the global debt crisis to the IMF and World Bank in the late 1990s.

Many of the negotiations and concessions in relation to the Tasi Mane and Sunrise projects have been done without public transparency, accountability or oversight by the responsible government agencies. As Timor-Leste leaders ask to pour billions of dollars from the national treasury into projects with dubious financial, economic or social return, these checks and balances are even more essential. Many countries which depend on extracting petroleum have been cursed by squandering their people's money on ill-conceived projects, which is why it is crucial to have expert analysis of project contracts carried out by State agencies which do not have a personal stake in pursuing them regardless of the costs and benefits.

In their brief analysis of the proposed amendment, the Parliamentary Plenary Support Division (DIPLEN) wrote "On the basis of available evidence, it is not possible to identify and quantify the financial costs resulting from the approval of this law." We believe that the costs are far too great, and call on Parliament to reject the proposed changes. While we don't yet know how many billions of dollars will be spent on the Sunrise and Tasi Mane projects (including debt service and possible default), the costs to fiscal responsibility, democracy and accountability are clear.

Parliament Committees C and D began considering the proposed revision on 6 November with a four-hour, closed-door hearing with Chief Negotiator Xanana Gusmão (reported by LUSA, Tatoli, Parliament, RTTL Video). After the hearing, Xanana told journalists that the $350 million purchase should be invested directly by the Petroleum Fund, rather than included as an expenditure item in the State Budget.

(However, since the Petroleum Fund Law only allows investments outside Timor-Leste, and most of Sunrise is in Timor-Leste territory under the new boundary treaty, this would not be legal. On the same day, the Council of Ministers increased the total appropriations for the 2019 State Budget from $1.3 billion to $1.9 billion, so it probably includes this expenditure. Government will submit its budget proposal to Parliament on 8 November.)

La'o Hamutuk and the NGO Forum wrote a joint submission (Tetum) to Parliament on 7 November, which was reported by LUSA in Portuguese. The Core Group on Transparency also made a submission, with FONGTIL. The civil society groups urged Parliament not to approve the law.

On 7 November, Parliament held another hearing with representatives of the Central Bank and the Audit Court (Tatoli). They have scheduled a plenary debate, with voting on the proposed amendment in generality, specifics and for final approval on Tuesday, 13 November.


For more information, see these relevant web pages:


The Timor-Leste Institute for Development Monitoring and Analysis (La’o Hamutuk)
Institutu Timor-Leste ba Analiza no Monitor ba Dezenvolvimentu
Rua D. Alberto Ricardo, Bebora, Dili, Timor-Leste
P.O. Box 340, Dili, Timor-Leste
Tel: +670-3321040 or +670-77234330
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