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PHNOM PENH/SINGAPORE, Aug 27 - When Cambodianofficials commemorated the start of the country's first oilproject in June by preserving the first drops of production at ahigh profile ceremony, they heralded the country's emergence asa budding oil exporter at the heart of Asia.
But instead of reaping royalties, Cambodia's government hasfiled a theft complaint against the crew of the tanker thatstored the crude, after they sailed away with the oil amid apayment dispute with the oil field's developer.
Singapore-based KrisEnergy, which owns a 95% stake in theoffshore Apsara field in the Gulf of Thailand, was forced intoliquidation shortly after production began in December 2020.Cost overruns and poor oil yields from the project had left thecompany unable to repay debt.
KrisEnergy's collapse also ended hopes of further oil saleproceeds for the Cambodian government, which owns the remaining5% stake. All operations were halted and are deemed unlikely toresume given poor extraction rates, according to a local mediareport citing the Cambodian Ministry of Mines and Energy inJuly.
That's likely to be a major disappointment to Cambodianauthorities, who had anticipated roughly $500 million in tax androyalty revenues over the project's lifetime.
The output stoppage means all there is left to show forCambodia's oil production efforts now lies in the belly of theMT Strovolos, the 300,000-barrel tanker that had stored the oilproduced at the site until it was forced to divert last month insearch of a fresh crew and has now been detained by theIndonesian navy.
The Cambodian energy ministry, KrisEnergy and itsliquidators did not respond to requests for comment.
With the fully-laden vessel now impounded in Batam, andKrisEnergy's liquidation proceedings still under way, lawyerswho have been tracking developments predict a lengthy disputeover who owns and can sell the oil.
"I expect that if the Cambodian Government wants to detainthe cargo and have it shipped back to Cambodia, there may arisecompeting claimants who are saying they are lawful owners of thecargo, potentially including the liquidator of KrisEnergy," saidPeter Doraisamy, managing partner at PDLegal LLC.
"It is likely to take several years at the very minimumdepending on which jurisdiction is seized of the case, and thereis possibility that cases may be brought in more than onejurisdiction and by different parties."
A key fundamental question is who actually owns the crudecargo, currently valued at around $20 million, now thatKrisEnergy has become insolvent.
"The ship owner may not actually know who owns the cargo,and he's not a party to any of those contracts, he just getstold what to do by the charterer," said Leon Alexander, partnerat Clyde & Co.
"But the shipowner owes a legal obligation to that personwho is the cargo owner, he's got to look after and care for thecargo. And he's not allowed to deliver the cargo to the wrongperson or act in a manner inconsistent with the rights of thecargo owner, or he faces a legal claim in conversion."