An Independent Kurdistan? Ask the Oil Companies

Iraq is blessed with abundant oil that is cheap to extract and close to newly built export terminals. Production has hit a three-decade high and continues to rise steadily. By 2035, predicts the International Energy Agency (IEA) Iraqi output could more than double, to 8.3m barrels per day (b/d).  But Western oil firms are increasingly reluctant to play a part in this boom. ExxonMobil appears keen to sell its stake in West Qurna, one of the giant fields in southern Iraq that will provide much of the production growth. Royal Dutch Shell and BP are both still working in the south, but unhappily so. Suffocating bureaucracy and onerous contract terms make life difficult. Heavier-than-expected costs and delays to infrastructure undercut profits.

Three years ago when they signed contracts with the Iraqi government, the oil majors were prepared to accept hiccups. But their patience has thinned with the arrival of an alternative source of Iraqi oil. Kurdistan, the semi-autonomous province in the country’s north, has been offering competing and much more lucrative deals. ExxonMobil’s decision last year to acquire six blocks in the region angered the central government, which considers the deal illegal and lays claim to Kurdish oil. But the world’s largest oil company started a trend. In July Total, Chevron and Gazprom all signed contracts with the Kurdistan regional government, potentially dooming their chances of winning future business in the south. BG, a British firm, was in Erbil, the Kurdish capital, on a scouting mission in late October.

“Kurdistan is 11 years ahead of the rest of Iraq in terms of political and commercial development,” says Luay al-Khatteeb, head of the Iraq Energy Institute, a London-based think-tank. Kurdistan’s potential oil reserves of around 45 billion barrels are less than a third of those in southern Iraq. Still, the Kurdish oil minister, Ashti Hawrami, believes output of 1m b/d is possible within three years.

The tricky part is getting the oil to market. The Kurds today export around 200,000 b/d through pipelines controlled by the central government. Mr Hawrami wants to build a new Kurdish-owned pipe to Turkey, feeding long-held dreams of Kurdish independence. That unnerves Turkey which is fighting Kurdish separatists in its south-east. Some Turkish officials seem to acknowledge the possibility of an eventual Kurdish state in northern Iraq and seek to make it commercially dependent on Turkey. Co-operating with the Iraqi Kurds would also generate lucrative transit fees and offer Turkey an alternative to oil from Russia and Iran.

The Iraqi government is pondering how to respond. It could sweeten the terms of its contracts with the oil firms in the south. That might staunch the flow of Western capital to Kurdistan. In the meantime, the main beneficiaries of the majors’ receding interest in southern Iraq are Asian oil firms. Chinese will account for about 2m b/d of Iraq’s production by 2020. Fatih Birol, the IEA’s chief economist, talks of a “Baghdad-to-Beijing” axis.

Iraq’s oil: The Kurdish opening, Economist,Nov. 3, at 49

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