Iraqi Oil: Resource Curse or Glorious Blessing?

Our Expert Blogger Ahmed Mousa Jiyad talks to Robert Tollast about Iraq’s energy revolution.

RT: The involvement of major US IOC’s such as Exxon and Chevron in Iraqi Kurdistan has sparked a war of words between Baghdad and Erbil. Possibly concerned about a breakdown in relations between the KRG and Baghdad, the US State Department has warned US IOC’s to be cautious, as a US State Department spokesperson recently said:

We speak about it in Iraq. With regard to our own companies, we continue to tell them that signing contracts for oil exploration or production with any region of Iraq without approval from the federal Iraqi authorities exposes them to potential legal risk, and we continue to tell them – obviously, they’ll make their own business decisions, but unless and until we have federal legislation in Iraq governing these things, something that we’ve been urging, that there are risks for them. So that’s our message to our companies.

This has provoked a furious response from Kurdistan’s Minister for Natural Resources, Ashti Hawrami. Is it correct to say that US IOC’s should pay more attention to Iraqi politics and be a lot more careful?

AMJ- This question covers a plethora of issues.Firstly, it is my humble view that all IOCs should be careful and refrain from getting involved in the internal politics of any country, especially Iraq, and this is particularly true for IOCs with an unfavourable image in the national memory of Iraqis. They are oil companies and they should work as operators to develop the upstream petroleum sector as stipulated in their related service contracts, and thus should not assume any political or diplomatic function- it is not their job to do so. Politics should not be their preoccupation especially when their involvement in domestic politics will add more “fuel on the fire,” to borrow the title of an excellent book by Greg Muttitt.

Second, there is nothing new in the above position of the American administration on the issue under discussion. This citation reconfirms the content of a letter from the American President to Mr. al-Maliki answering the request of the latter for intervention in the ExxonMobil case with the KRG. However, misquotation, misinterpretation and different interpretations become probable depending on who reads this statement, how and why; and this applies to both sides of the isle. Nevertheless, this does not change the fact that production sharing contracts signed by IOCs with the KRG carry serious and daunting legal risks and face very serious uncertainties.

Third, with regards to ExxonMobil I believe the company might have made a grave error of judgement. The views expressed by my contacts among many Iraqi and non-Iraqi professionals suggest that ExxonMobil acted probably out of arrogance, short-sightedness, a misreading of Iraqi national memory and a disrespect for sovereignty with a covert and overt agenda.

We have to remember that ExxonMobil (along with Shell) did not win West Qurna 1 (giant Iraqi oil field- WQ1) during the first bidding round held in June 2009. It did so only after its competitor (Russia’s Lukoil) announced its decision to accept the ministry of oil’s remuneration fees of $1.9/barrel in October 2009. Then and only then ExxonMobil acted quickly by accepting the same term, which it refused in June, and proposed a higher production plateau target or PPT of 2.350 million barrels a day (mbd.) The ministry favoured ExxonMobil over Lukoil!

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