THE ROVING EYE
Iraq's oil auction hits the jackpot
By Pepe Escobar
BEIJING - Former United States vice president Dick Cheney, ex-defense minister
Donald Rumsfeld and assorted US neo-cons will have plenty of time to nurse
their apoplexy. One of their key reasons to unleash the war on Iraq in 2003 was
to seize control of its precious oilfields and thus shape a great deal of the
new great game in Eurasia - the energy front - by restricting the access of
Europe and Asia to Iraq's staggering 115 billion barrels of proven oil
After at least US$2 trillion spent by Washington and arguably more than a
million dead Iraqis, it has come to this: a pipe dream definitely buried this
past weekend in Baghdad with round two of bids to exploit a number of vast and
immensely profitable oil fields.
The bids, supervised by the Oil Ministry, were presented on a live
TV game show. Instead of American Idol, Iraqis got "Oil Idol". In a
raucous carpet bazaar atmosphere, the ministry played "my way or the highway"
and forced 44 foreign Big Oil corporations to cut to the max the fee they
collect on every barrel extracted in Iraq and submit to 20-year contracts.
These multinationals were not given a share in Iraqi oil production; they will
be paid a $2 fee per barrel for raising output above a mutually agreed level.
Still, for Big Oil, the possibility of having a crack at all those mega-giant
fields in Shi'ite-controlled southeast Iraq - the largest concentration of its
kind in the world - led all players to yell , "It's raining oil!" Once you've
paid the ticket, you're inside the theater. And what a theatre ... The Iraqi
government may end up paying foreign Big Oil as much as $50 billion for its
know-how. All these "service" deals will dodge Iraq's parliament - which might
throw a wrench in the works. And Big Oil will still get $2 for each barrel of
extra crude above a minimum production target.
In June, Iraq held its first oil auction, offering foreign companies the chance
to increase production at already-pumping fields. The latest auction was the
first time foreign firms could bid on untapped fields. Of the 10 groups of
fields available, seven were awarded.
Win-win for Russia and China
Cheney's and Rumsfeld's script was never supposed to develop like this. Instead
of US Big Oil getting the lion's share, strategic competitors Russia and China
turned out to be big winners. Dick Cheney's "consolation prize" was an
Exxon-Mobil-Shell alliance getting the phase 1 of West Qurna in early November.
Exxon-Mobil had been the favorite to also win Rumaila (17.8 billion barrels of
reserves). But a BP-CNPC (China National Petroleum Corporation) alliance got it
in the end because unlike Exxon-Mobil they agreed to cut their fee per barrel
down to the Oil Ministry-enforced $2.
CNPC (50%), along with partners Total from France (25%) and Petronas from
Malaysia (25%), was also a big winner for Halfaya (4.1 billion barrels of
reserves, projected output of 535,000 barrels per day (bpd)), southeast of
Petronas again (with 60%), and the Japan Petroleum Exploration Company (Japex),
with 40%, will invest a cool $7 billion to develop Gharaf (reserves of around
860 million barrels, projected output of 230,000 bpd). Bidding was fierce.
Losers were a joint Turkish-Indian bid, a Kazakh/South Korean/Italian
consortium, and Pertamina from Indonesia.
A Petronas-Shell alliance got the highly coveted Majnoon (reserves of more than
12 billion barrels, projected output of 1.8 million bpd), near the Iranian
border. Russia's Lukoil (85%), with junior partner Statoil (15%), got phase 2
of the immense West Qurna (located 65 kilometers northwest of Basra; about 12
billion barrels of reserves; projected production of 1.8 million bpd) - which
in theory it had already bagged under Saddam Hussein. When Lukoil was stripped
of its contract by Saddam, it blamed US-instigated United Nations sanctions,
while Saddam blamed Lukoil itself.
West Qurna's phase 1 (8.7 billion barrels of reserves, with a projection to
increase output from 300,000 bpd to 2.3 million bpd before 2016) was won in
November by the aforementioned Exxon Mobil-Shell alliance. Losers were Total
from France, a consortium of Petronas, Pertamina and Petrovietnam, and a
Gazprom (40%), with junior partners TPAO, Kogas and Petronas, got Badra
(projected production of 170,000 bpd). Unlike the mad scramble for the southern
fields, no one even bid for the East Baghdad field, for obvious reasons: it's
located in a virtual war zone. 
The Shi'ites are coming!
Iraq nationalized its oil industry in 1972. Now Big Oil is back with a
vengeance. Iraqi Oil Minister Hussain al-Shahristani made no bones about Iraq's
ambitions, saying, "Our principal objective is to increase our oil production
from 2.4 million barrels per day to more than four million in the next five
years." Iraq is at present exporting less oil than under Saddam, but it aims to
export seven million barrels a day by 2016. Shahristani also insists "our
country will have total control over production".
That is enormously debatable.
For the moment, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government in Baghdad is
obviously a winner. Iraq currently gets only $60 billion a year in oil
revenues. It's not enough to rebuild a country destroyed by the Iran-Iraq war
of the 1980s, UN sanctions and the American occupation. Arguably, Iraq's oil
industry would not have sufficient funds, equipment and technical people to get
back on its feet alone.
Whether with more oil revenues Baghdad will be able to impose law and order -
starting with the capital - and fully equip its 275,000 military plus police
forces, that's an open question. No one knows for sure who will be in control
of Iraq in the near future, with parliamentary elections due early next year. A
new government may be tempted to renegotiate these contracts, or even
In the next few years, with Iraq being able to reach the target of producing at
least four million barrels a day, it's fair to argue this won't substantially
influence the price of oil; but it will prevent it from shooting up out of
proportion. China is now importing over four million bpd - and this will
continue to rise. China by itself will be gobbling up any output increase in
the global oil market.
What the early 2010s will definitely see is the rise of a relatively wealthy,
Shi'ite-controlled Iraq friendly with Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah.
Essentially, Shi'ite Islam on the rise. The US-friendly autocracies and
dictatorships in the Gulf will cry again, "It's the return of the Shi'ite
crescent!" United States think-tanks may be tempted to define Maliki as the new
Saddam. The only difference is that by then, Cheney and company will be safely
ensconced in the dustbin of history.
1. To see which companies got what in detail, go