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ENI hits barrier in Asia
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Turkmenistan denies visas to senior staff in dispute over deal

Turkmenistan has denied entry visas to managers from Italian oil company ENI SpA, even as the Central Asian country campaigns to attract foreign investors after decades of self imposed isolation.

The move is a blow to ENI's plans to become a big player in Turkmenistan, an energy-rich nation on the Caspian Sea. ENI acquired a foothold in Turkmenistan late last year when it bought Burren Energy PLC, a small independent company that operates an oil field in the west of the country.

But, according to people familiar with the situation, the Turkmen authorities were annoyed they weren't consulted about the takeover and have since denied visas to senior ENI staff seeking to enter the country.

Turkmenistan has the second largest natural gas reserves in the former Soviet Union after Russia and the move against ENI comes despite intense efforts by the country's new leaders to open up and attract foreign investment to its energy sector.

Saparmurat Niyazov, a reclusive dictator, ran Turkmenistan for 20 years, closing the country to the outside world. Mr. Niyazov, who   renamed months of the year after members of his family and banned ballet, opera and gold teeth, died in December 2006. He was succeeded by his former doctor, Kurbanguly Berdy mukhamedov, who moved quickly to end the country's isolation and called on international energy companies to help it develop its vast hydrocarbon reserves.

Turkmenistan sells most of its gas to Russia, but the new president has promised a new pipeline to China and natural gas contracts to the European Union.

Mr. Berdy mukhamedov has also commissioned oil advisory firm Gaffney, Cline & Associates to conduct an audit of the country's oil and gas reserves, which under Mr. Niyazov were a closely guarded secret.

Western oil companies have responded warmly to Turkmenistan's overtures. Majors like BP PLC and Exxon Mobil Corp. were among the sponsors  of a well at tended conference held in London last week at which Turkmenistan advertised the potential of its oil and gas industry. Two similar events are planned for this year.

Tachberdi Tagiev, deputy chairman of the Turkmen cabinet, told the conference that 50 of the country's 150 oil fields were currently being developed. He said by 2030 Turkmenistan would be producing 2.2 million barrels of oil a day, more than IO times its current output, as well as three times its current output of naturai gas.

But ENI's travails show Turkmenistan stili has far to go to create a predictable business climate. ENI entered Turkmenistan when it acquired Burren late last year in a $3.5 billion deal: the U.K. independent owned and operated the small Burun field in western Turkmenistan, as well as assets in the Congo, Egypt, Yemen and Oman.

ENI's chief executive, Paolo Scaroni, said at the time that Burren's Turkmen operation would afford ENI "an interesting entry into a new market" that was largely unexplored. Since then, the Turkmen authorities have refused to issue visas to senior ENI managers. A person familiar with the situation said ENI had appointed mediators who were in talks with the Turkmen government to resolve the impasse.

ENI said its Turkmen operations were continuing as normal, and former Burren employees now working for ENI "continue to travel in and out of the country as usual." A spokeswoman said ENI hadn't received any officiai notification that it was being denied access to Turkmenistan. A spokesman for the Turkmen foreign ministry declined to comment.

Source >  The Wall Street Journal Europe

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