‘Our success in Africa makes some people jealous’ says Perenco’s managing director

By Christophe Le Bec

Posted on Wednesday, 10 March 2021 19:12
The Kinkazi pumping station in Perenco, near Muanda, DRC. © Gwenn DUBOURTHOUMIEU for JA

In an exclusive interview, managing director Benoît de la Fouchardière praises Perenco's performance, particularly in the DRC, Tunisia and Gabon. He also defends the group's environmental record as well as the relationships established with these governments.

Until now, the motto of Perenco’s management seemed to be “to live happily means we should live in hiding.” Managing director Benoît de la Fouchardière, who has been piloting the Franco-British oil and gas company since 2015, admits that he is not in the habit of talking to journalists.

“We are not great communicators, but we have a close dialogue with our 6,000 employees and our partners, especially with governments,” he said during an interview he finally granted us in early February.

14th French fortune

Even though the company is reluctant to assume its French nationality, invoking the London registration of its parent company, the group was founded by Hubert Perrodo, an expert in enhancing the production of mature oil fields. Since Perrodo’s death in 2006, the company has been chaired by his son François Perrodo and run by French engineers, most of whom are based in the 17th arrondissement of Paris, not far from Parc Monceau.

The Perrodo family – which is currently ranked 14th in France in terms of wealth, according to Challenges magazine – still owns the company and has always been extremely discreet.

“We have a single shareholder, we manage 95% of the oil fields in which we have shares. We are first and foremost a group of engineers, and we firmly believe in our independence, whether financial or technical, which gives us great strategic agility,” says Fouchardière. He, in fact, does not have the same obligations to ensure the transparency and publication of results as his competitors of the same size do, most of whom are listed on the stock exchange.

Exploration of marginal fields

Fouchardière trained at the Institut Français du Pétrole (IFP School), like Hubert and François Perrodo. He was hired to get the company back on its feet after it faced some disruptions in the early 2010’s – notably for acquisitions deemed too costly – and the fall in crude oil prices in 2014.

Shortly after his arrival, Fouchardière set up a multidisciplinary team to evaluate mature fields put up for sale by companies. This team was able to shrewdly seize various opportunities, from Gabon to Mexico.

The managing director has also launched the group into new niches, which includes exploring marginal fields close to existing facilities. He has also pushed the company to develop and transform the gas from its mature fields, for local needs and export.

Impressive expansion

As a result of these actions, Perenco’s impressive expansion over the last five years – both geographically and in terms of volume – cannot fail to impress, be they oil analysts and competitors or the general public.

The Franco-British group has become France’s second-largest crude oil producer – extracting the equivalent of some 450,000 barrels per day at present – and has expanded its footprint in recent years.

After acquiring most of Total’s facilities and permits in Gabon in 2017 and 2020, it became the leading crude oil producer in Libreville. Since the 1980s, it has also been the first – and still the only – oil group operating in the DRC. Its establishment is situated in Muanda, at the mouth of the Congo River, where it took over – and then developed – the onshore and offshore fields at Fina and Chevron.

In addition to being the leading hydrocarbon producer in Cameroon and a major player in the DRC, Perenco has also invested in other regions. Despite a very sub-Saharan background – he has been country manager in the DRC and Cameroon, and director of operations in Gabon – Fouchardière also emphasises the group’s major projects in Tunisia and Latin America, particularly in Mexico. According to the managing director, Central Africa only represents about half of its assets today.

Activities studied by NGOs

With this scale of projects, which have been kept relatively quiet, it is hardly surprising that a number of NGOs – French and local – are interested in this group  that has remained very discreet. They include Sherpa and Les Amis de la Terre, based in Paris, as well as Avocats Sans Frontières, based in Brussels. All three of these organisations have links with local civil society organisations, the first two are in the DRC and the third is in Tunisia.

In their various reports on Perenco, these NGOs accuse it of polluting the environment, harming local communities and interfering with the authorities at the expense of the general interest. These accusations have left Perenco’s leaders, who have always refused to enter into dialogue with them, in a state of shock.

“We are not accountable to organisations that are responsible for our relationships, some of which are essentially based on the pure and simple disappearance of the oil industry,” says the CEO, who nevertheless emphasises the implementation of “extremely robust environmental protection, health and safety procedures that comply not only with local regulations, but also with international standards.”

“At the cutting edge of environmental protection technology”

Fouchardière also believes that Perenco is, contrary to the claims of its detractors, at the cutting edge of environmental protection technology.

“With our subsidiary Petrodec, we are the only ones to have launched a complete dismantling of oil wells that have ceased production and ad hoc environmental measures. Today Petrodec is working on two rigs in the UK, in the North Sea, but tomorrow its services could be called upon anywhere, for example in Africa, to ensure the definitive closure of extractive sites,” he says.

“Despite everything, accidents can still happen and this is true for Perenco as it is for most oil groups,” says the managing director. “In this case, we are doing everything we can to contain and treat the pollution, as we have just done in Gabon, in close collaboration with the relevant authorities,” he says, without wishing to expand further on the damage recently caused in that country by the group. This incident is the subject of a Libreville lawsuit filed in January 2021 by the Réseau des Organisations Libres pour la Bonne Gouvernance (ROLBG).

Too close to the authorities?

“As for relations with local communities, we have a very specific Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) policy. Unlike other companies, we have not delegated it to external service providers, but have internalised it because it is a question of responding to the real needs of the populations we meet on the ground. In Muanda, for example, our teams live among the population, including expatriate engineers. In consultation with local stakeholders, we have launched projects to improve access to electricity, education and agroforestry as well as search for solutions to better preserve fish to be sold in Kinshasa,” says Fouchardière.

The managing director sweeps aside allegations, many of which are from their Gabonese competitors, that accuse the Franco-British group of being too close to the authorities.

“The truth is that our success makes some people jealous. We have built up good relations with the Gabonese authorities because they have long understood the interest of developing their mature fields thanks to Perenco’s technical know-how, which is recognised locally. We have also been able to listen to their needs, particularly in terms of energy, to offer them Gas-to-Power infrastructures that are essential for the country’s electrification,” concludes Fouchardière.

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