Thursday, June 25, 2009

big oil ready for iraq

WSJ | Western oil companies were kicked out of Iraq in 1972, part of a wave of Mideast petroleum nationalization. Oil production hit at least three million barrels a day before Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, then fell sharply to 300,000 barrels after economic sanctions and trade embargoes were imposed. Production rebounded to about 2.5 million barrels before the U.S. invasion in 2003.

Iraqi lawmakers have squabbled for years over a draft petroleum law that would set a legal framework for foreign companies to start drilling again. Tired of waiting, Mr. Shahristani in 2008 unilaterally invited oil companies to bid on contracts. Because global companies are reluctant to explore undeveloped fields in Iraq without an oil law, Mr. Shahristani has focused on getting foreign help pumping from existing fields. "We have done what we can with our national resources, and now we need outside help," he says.

Despite security risks, Western oil companies are clamoring to get in. Iraq is still relatively unexplored, offering big companies a potentially easy-to-tap source of growth. Some are touting Iraq as the most important opening of petroleum fields since the discovery in 2000 of the giant Kashagan field in the Caspian Sea.

Some 120 companies expressed interest in bidding for the contracts at the June 29 and 30 auction, according to the oil ministry. Thirty-five companies qualified to bid, including Exxon Mobil Corp., Royal Dutch Shell PLC, Italy's Eni SpA, Russia's Lukoil and China Petroleum & Chemical Corp., or Sinopec. The six oil fields at stake are believed to hold reserves of more than 43 billion barrels. Foreigners won't get the most prized piece of the action -- ownership stakes in the reserves -- but will be paid fees for ramping up output.

Just over 20 of Iraq's roughly 80 known oil fields have been fully or partially developed, and most of its production comes from just three giants, North and South Rumaila and Kirkuk. Because lots of the black gold is considered relatively easy to extract, oil experts estimate that exploration and development in Iraq costs $1.50 to $2.25 a barrel, compared with about $5 in Malaysia or $20 in Canada.

"We're talking about a huge volume of crude flowing through their system for the companies who win the bids," says Samuel Ciszuk, IHS Global Insight's Middle East Energy analyst. "On the other side, Iraq desperately needs technology, and these companies can bring it."