Eni SpA has pulled out of its planned $1.5 billion purchase of Heritage Oil Plc's Ugandan assets in what is a setback for the Italian oil group's ambitions to grow in Africa to boost flagging output.
"Eni revoked the sale and purchase agreement signed on December 18 for the acquisition of Heritage's 50 percent share in Ugandan Blocks 1 and 3A, on which Tullow Oil has exercised its preemption right," an Eni spokesman said.
Earlier four sources familiar with the situation told Reuters that Eni had withdrawn from the planned deal. They said
Eni can withdraw without paying any break-up fees.
Eni's decision reflects a surrender in the hotly contested battle for the fields, which executives say contain around 2 billion barrels of oil, and victory for explorer Tullow Oil Plc, which plans to sell the assets on to China's CNOOC Ltd.
The resources originally earmarked for the initiative will be rechanneled to other development projects, "including the two new projects of Zubair in Iraq and Junin 5 in Venezuela on which the company has high expectations," the Eni spokesman said.
Eni -- which is already an operator in Angola, Ghana, Nigeria, Congo, Gabon and Mozambique -- is targeting Africa to help it lift output.
In October, Eni cut its oil and natural gas output target for the full year to fall in line with 2008's 1.797 million barrels of oil equivalent per day (boepd).
It had hoped that Uganda would become an important new beachhead in Africa and enlisted the support of Italy's Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, who traveled to Kampala to press Eni's case.
Tullow and Heritage control three oil blocks that cover the Ugandan side of Lake Albert, but the explorers lack the technical skill and resources to develop the complex project alone.
Eni agreed in December to buy the interests from Heritage, for $1.35 billion in cash immediately and a further deferred payment of either $150 million or an interest in another oil-producing field independently valued at a similar amount.
Tullow wants Heritage's half-share of Blocks 1 and 3A so it can attract a partner of its own choosing without reducing its own interests too much. It has selected China's CNOOC as its preferred partner to buy Heritage's assets and half of Block 2.
The planned acquisition, in which Tullow would match Eni's bid, also gives the London-based company operatorship of the two blocks. It already has operatorship of Block 2, which it owns solely.
Uganda's State Minister for Minerals Peter Lokeris said on Thursday that Kampala had approved Tullow's preemption of the sale.
Jersey-based Heritage plans to use the proceeds of the sale to develop its new discoveries in Iraq's semiautonomous Kurdish region, and Eni's withdrawal reduces the risk that the sale will be further delayed.
Uganda's parliament will begin inquiries next week into production sharing agreements after activists complained that the deals reached by the government give a disproportionate chunk of the proceeds to foreign firms.