Iraq hails 2nd international oil auction as companies commit to under half the fields offered

By Sinan Salaheddin, AP
Saturday, December 12, 2009

Iraq hails 2nd oil auction

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s oil minister on Saturday began counting the money even before the first wells were drilled, dubbing the country’s second post-war oil auction a triumph, despite caution from international oil companies.

World oil players steered largely clear of anything but Iraq’s cheapest and safest of the reserves in the Middle East’s last major oil bonanza.

The two-day licensing round, which ended Saturday, saw deals on only seven of the 15 fields on offer. Of those, four were in the stable southern Shiite heartland while two in the north went to the only company that expressed an interest: Angola’s Sonogal. The last was in central Iraq, in a province where violence has remained at a minimum.

The auction was key for Iraq. Its international licensing round in June — the first in over three decades — largely failed with only one giant field awarded out of eight offered. The hope was for a better showing this time with deals that could help Iraq rebuild after the 2003 U.S.-led war that many say compounded decades of economic neglect and mismanagement under Saddam Hussein’s regime.

But a cloud hung over the auction in the heavily fortified Oil Ministry. It came days after bombings Tuesday around Baghdad killed at least 127 people in a sobering reminder of the challenges the Baghdad government faces with the looming withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country.

“It is a big victory for Iraq,” Oil Minister Hussain al-Shahristani told reporters after the final field was auctioned. “It is a big achievement for Iraq to win such contracts at the current prices.”

Al-Shahristani, who has staked both his and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s political future on promises of boosting oil output, said that the deals signed at this round, along with the June auction, will help raise production to 12 million barrels per day within six years.

In addition, “at the current world oil prices, the contracts (awarded) in the two bidding rounds will bring in $200 billion per year,” he said.

It may be a case of wishful thinking.

Iraq has not been able to raise output to even close to pre-2003 levels, and is limping along at roughly 2.5 million barrels per day.

It exports between 1.8 and 2 million barrels a day on a given month, and is not even included in the output restrictions to which the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries’ members are supposed to be bound. Moreover, it relies on oil revenue for 90 percent of its government budget, leaving it in a precarious position if oil prices collapse as they did last year.

None of the U.S. supermajors like Exxon Mobil Corp. or Chevron submitted bids, leaving only Occidental to make one failed bid on the auction’s first day.

“We just decided not to bid,” Richard C. Vierbuchen, president of Exxon Mobil Upstream Ventures (West) Ltd., told The Associated Press. He did not elaborate.

Companies such as Exxon Mobil and BP are crucial for their technical know-how, which analysts say trumps that of some Russian or Chinese companies that have made aggressive inroads in Iraq.

The auction offered oil companies their biggest slice of Iraq’s oil yet, roughly one-third of its 115 billion barrels in reserves.

With a lesson learned from the June event, Iraq appeared to be more flexible in its terms, giving the companies more operational control over the fields while still focusing on heavily on the price it was willing to pay them for each barrel produced.

Companies must accept 20-year service contracts and receive a flat fee per barrel produced for their services instead of production-sharing contracts, which are much more lucrative.

Success is vital for Iraq’s leaders.

Political infighting has not only delayed passage of a national oil law, but it has meant that the Baghdad government can’t even agree with the provincial government in the semiautonomous Kurdistan region over who controls oil rights there. Similarly, with elections coming up in March, al-Maliki and al-Shahristani, who is on the same ticket, need some political capital to ward off challenges from other top Shiite political leaders.

Debate on the oil law — which Washington had called a “benchmark” for political progress in Iraq — has been delayed until the new parliament is seated after the election.

The latest auction may, at best, be a step in the right direction — a face-saving event that officials can say saw the two biggest fields snapped up, as well as some others in the north that analysts thought would fall victim to Iraq’s delicate political balancing act.

On Saturday Russian private oil giant Lukoil teamed up with Norway’s Statoil ASA to snatch the crown jewel of the auction, the 12.88 billion barrel West Qurna Phase 2 field in southern Iraq. The field was a coup for Lukoil, representing the fulfillment of a contract they had won in 1997 under Saddam, only to see the dictator rescind the deal five years later.

They beat out three other consortiums led by Britain’s BP PLC, France’s Total SA and Malaysia’s state-run Petronas, nabbing the field with an offer to accept $1.15 per barrel of oil produced and to raise output to 1.8 million barrels per day in 13 years, prevailed. That is more than twice the targeted daily output set by Iraq.

“We are very happy today,” said Lukoil representative Andrey Kuzyaev.

Deals were also reached on Gharraf, a small southern field that went to a Petronas-led consortium that included Japex, while Russia’s Gazprom claimed a small central Iraqi field. The final field, in the north, went to Sonogal, which earlier in the day did an about-face and accepted Iraq’s terms on another small neighboring field near restive Mosul.

Even Gharraf’s winners, however, appeared concerned despite its location in the south.

“It depends on the security situation,” Katsuo Suzuki, Japex’s vice president, said when asked when the companies would begin work. “We are in contact with several security companies to discuss the security situations and analyze carefully the situation to decide our program.”

Three other central Iraqi fields were withdrawn from the bidding and Iraq said it would develop those alone.

A day earlier, a consortium led by Shell and Petronas won the rights to develop Majnoon, a 12.5 billion barrel southern field on which Total had bid. The French supermajor Total had eyed the field hungrily, also on the back of an earlier contract under Saddam that was also canceled.

A second major southern field was awarded Friday. Afterwards, however, bidding tapered off and companies showing no interest in five fields offered in volatile eastern Iraq or near Baghdad.

Those fields were also withdrawn, and will have to be developed by Iraq.

AP Business Writer Tarek El-Tablawy contributed from Cairo.

will not be displayed