Is Iraq Our Oil Saviour ?  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

If you've studied the history of Iraqi oil in some detail you'll realise just how dodgy and self-serving this latest piece from the Economist is - whitewashing our oil grab and blaming the current state of the Iraqi oil industry on misfortune and the Iraqis themselves - rather than the seven sisters' policy of restricting Iraqi oil production for many decades. From An oil saviour?:

Iraq has the potential to supply much more oil

The growing concerns in the world energy market about the risks of a supply crunch have been a critical factor behind the recent surge in oil prices to a new record of US$135/barrel. Speculators are betting huge sums on the assumption that the oil market (and other primary energy markets) will remain tight for many years to come, owing to the inelasticity of demand and to the constraints on long-term supply. Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil exporter, is doing its bit to allay these concerns, but has acknowledged that once its current crop of oilfield projects is complete in around 2013, there will be little scope for further capacity increases. Similar strains are evident in most of the other major oil-producing countries. One significant exception is Iraq, which holds (at least) 10% of the world's proven reserves, but accounts for only 2.5% of total production. Iraq has the potential to furnish a long-term solution to the oil market's long-term supply problem, but it will need to improve dramatically on its recent performance before buyers of oil futures will be convinced that it can deliver.

All about oil

If history had been kinder, Iraq could now be producing at a comparable level to Saudi Arabia. Instead, three wars, 13 years of sanctions and five years of internal conflict have eroded Iraq's oil infrastructure and human capital. However, Iraq also has a history of recovery. Production peaked at over 3.5m barrels/day (b/d) in 1980 on the eve of the Iran-Iraq war, but then averaged less than half that level during the eight-year war. It had nearly recovered to 3.5m b/d in 1990, after which the invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent UN sanctions severely limited exports, and hence production. In the five years before the US-led invasion of 2003, the sanctions regime gradually permitted greater exports, and production was often above 2.5m b/d. However, it fluctuated considerably due to the impact of years of underinvestment, restrictions on the import of spare parts and isolation from the international oil industry.

This volatility in production has continued in post-Saddam Iraq, although the average level has usually been below 2m b/d, and only exceeded the immediate pre-war level of 2.3m b/d for the first time at the end of 2007. Operations have been frequently disrupted by events ranging from the bombing of pipelines to the murder of oil workers. Moreover, the competition between political factions for influence at every level in the industry—as well as widespread corruption—has not provided suitable conditions for a revival of the industry. There is even concern that damage may have been caused to some fields in order to maintain production at modest levels.

Things may be changing. Iraq's deputy prime minister, Barham Salih, said in April that Iraq's total reserves, could be as high as 350bn barrels, triple the 115bn that has been its officially stated level for many years. The figure is aspirational and should be treated carefully but, given that there has been barely any new exploration of Iraq's promising geology in 30 years, an upward revision of the official reserves figure seems long overdue. This underlines Iraq's uniquely large reserves-to-production (RP) ratio, which was already the world's highest and, based on Mr Salih's estimate and at the expected production level of 2.3m b/d in 2008, would stand at a remarkable 415 years (compared with a world average of about 40 years). If Iraq were able to achieve the average Middle East RP-ratio of 80 years then it would be pumping 4m b/d based on the current reserves, and 12m b/d based on Salih's aspirational estimate. Getting there would take some time, around five years for 4m b/d and probably more than 20 years for the most optimistic level. It would also require Iraq to achieve a sufficient degree of stability. However, if there are promising signs of progress over the next 18 months, then it might be enough to mitigate fears of shortages next decade and dampen the futures market.

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