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Lackluster start for Iraq oil field auction

Iraq's hope of luring international oil companies with its mother lode of oil met with mixed results Friday, with only two deals struck.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Iraq's hope of luring international oil companies with its mother lode of oil met with mixed results Friday, with only two deals struck as security fears appeared to weigh heavily on the country's second oil auction this year.

Of the eight fields on offer in Friday's bidding, only those located in the relatively stable southern region of Iraq attracted heavy interest, while five located in more restive regions were withdrawn and a sixth field drew only one bid. In all, 15 fields are being offered in the two-day round, covering roughly a third of Iraq's 115 billion in proven reserves of crude.

The lackluster showing — coming months after Iraq's largely dismal first oil licensing round — offered a sobering message to Iraq despite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's attempt to strike an upbeat tone at the start of the auction held at the heavily fortified oil ministry.

"There is no security deterioration in Iraq even if a security violation took place here," al-Maliki told officials and company representatives.

It was clear, though, that the significance of a wave of attacks across Baghdad earlier this week, which killed at least 127 people, was not lost on executives from the 44 companies participating in the auction. The attacks shook confidence in the abilities of Iraq security forces as U.S. troops depart.

Two consortiums were quick to seize the chance to tap into one of the Middle East's last major cheap oil bonanzas, snapping up two fields with combined reserves of around 13 billion barrels in the relatively stable and oil-rich south.

No bidders stepped forward for any of the four eastern Iraq fields on offer in the restive Diyala province, home to some of the country's most violent areas.

Also drawing no interest were the central and northern parts of East Baghdad field in Baghdad and Salaheddin provinces. While security was likely a concern there, too, the field holds less desirable heavy oil and lies in residential district, making it more difficult to exploit.

"We were expecting that some companies would consider the security situation in Diyala and Ninevah provinces," said Oil Minister Hussain al-Shahristani.

Map shows 15 Iraqi oil fields that will be bid upon by foreign companiesP. Santilli / AP

But the minister also described the first day as a "great success," noting that per barrel price which companies would receive was satisfactory for Iraq and the production targets they proposed were higher than those set by the government.

"It won't be hard for the Iraqi government to portray this as a success," said Samuel Ciszuk, Mideast energy expert with London-based IHS Global Insight. But there is a caveat, he said.

"It shows that Iraq can absolutely get big commitments," said Ciszuk. "But with the current situation, they can only make progress on the biggest and cheapest fields" where the security risks are minimal and the costs of development are low.

Shell, Petronas nab first deal
The 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 considered more lucrative. A joint-venture structure will give the companies 75 percent and the rest to the Iraqi side that gets to keep all the profits from sales — which could be tens of millions of dollars a year for the biggest fields.

In the first deal of the day, European oil giant Shell teamed up with Malaysia's state-run Petronas to beat out a consortium grouping France's Total SA and China National Petroleum Corp. to win the southern Majnoon field. The 12.58 billion barrel behemoth in the Basra region was the biggest on offer in the first day of the auction.

The Shell-Petronas consortium will receive $1.39 per barrel produced, and said they would raise production from the current 45,900 barrels per day to 1.8 million barrels per day over a ten-year period.

Total and CNPC had asked to receive $1.75 per barrel, while offering to raise production to roughly 1.4 million barrels per day.

Shell and Petronas "look forward to developing this world class resource base with its partners," Shell said in a statement.

The second and final deal of the day was on the 4.1 billion barrel Halfaya field. CNPC, Petronas and Total teamed up on that bid, beating out three other consortiums led by Italy's Eni, Norway's Statoil ASA and India's ONGC.

Under the terms of the deal, CNPC, Petronas and Total will get $1.40 per barrel produced, and said they would raise production from the current 3,100 barrels per day to 535,000 barrels per day over 13 years, according to details released by al-Shahristani.

Iraq relies on oil exports
The deals are crucial for Iraq, which relies on oil for 90 percent of its government budget and sorely needs international companies' help in boosting production and revamping its dilapidated oil sector. The country is limping along with production at about 2.5 million barrels per day, of which roughly 2 million barrels a day is exported.

Iraq's first postwar bidding round in June flopped as firms resisted the financial provisions imposed by Iraq. This time, analysts say that the Iraqi government has improved contract terms

All the fields on offer in this round are known as "green" fields — ones which have yet to be fully developed. In total, they would have helped raise Iraq's production by another 2.6 million barrels per day over roughly the next decade.

Analysts have said the fields offer tremendous potential, but that interest could falter in part because of security concerns, their access to infrastructure and Iraq's perennial political bickering best evidenced by a lack of a national oil law.

Security concerns appeared to dominate the auction, with no bids submitted for the Qamar, Gullabat, Naudman and Khashm al-Ahmar fields in eastern Iraq, and they were withdrawn from the auction.

While these are relatively small fields, the surprise, analysts say, was in the lack of interest in East Baghdad, which Ciszuk says has reserves of about 8 billion barrels.

Day two of the auction Saturday, may result with only one major deal signed, analysts say.

The giant West Qurna, with 12.88 billion barrels of reserves, is expected to draw fierce bidding while some of the smaller fields located near the semiautonomous Kurdistan region may fail to attract interest.

The central government in Baghdad is locked in a bitter dispute with the provincial Kurdistan government over oil rights, and that fight has affected companies that signed deals with the Kurds.

China's state-owned Sinopec Group was dropped from the auction because of its $7.5 billion acquisition of Addax Petroleum, which has assets in northern Iraq.

It would have been the 45th company participating in the bidding round.