WRAPUP 1-Iraq picks up pace on oil deals, elections loom

Mon Oct 19, 2009 12:27pm EDT

* Big oil firms to bid in 2nd round despite political risks

* Competition fierce as companies fear missing out

* 2nd round takes place just a month before elections

By Simon Webb and Ayla Jean Yackley

ISTANBUL, Oct 19 (Reuters) - Iraq is poised in the coming weeks to sign a series of deals that promise to lure the tens of billions of dollars it needs to become one of the world's elite oil producers.

In addition to signing contracts already being negotiated, the world's largest energy companies will face off in December in a second fierce competition to develop some of the country's largest untapped oilfields.

The allure of the world's third-largest oil reserve holder outweighs concern that future Iraqi governments could tear up contracts in a country where there is no consensus on control of oil wealth.

"Every company has to be involved in Iraq, it is as simple as that," said one executive who attended a two-day oil contract workshop in Istanbul hosted by Iraqi officials.

"It is historic. It is too big to miss. The legal risk is a problem, but there are less questions than at the first bid round."

The second bidding round since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003 could see deals that would add millions of barrels more to Iraq's future oil output, building on the promise of huge gains through deals that Baghdad is close to finalising after the first bidding round in June.

In the past week, several big oil companies have agreed to terms they had previously rejected after Iraq sweetened deals by lowering taxes. Oil firms that missed out on those deals would push very hard for contracts in the second round, oil executives in Istanbul said.

"Now that some of the big boys have signed up for these low fees, we have to compete. It's scary as hell but we have no choice," said another executive.

The second bid round is set for Dec. 11-12, just a month before elections in January. The durability and legality of deals from both rounds could quickly face a test if a new government is elected. Oil firms fear that future governments may tear up the contracts.

Politics have dogged attempts since the invasion to overhaul an oil industry shattered after years of sanctions and war. Lawmakers warned foreign oil firms on Monday that the next administration could alter any deals.

"Oil companies ... should take into consideration the big risk behind these contracts," Ali Hussain Balou, head of parliament's oil and gas committee, told Reuters. [ID:nLJ10384]

"There are no guarantees for the oil companies that the new government will follow the same path in dealing with them. These contracts might be cancelled or at the very least revised."

In Istanbul, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's energy adviser said there were as many parliamentarians in favour of the deals as against and less opposition within the country to the second bid round than the first.

"There is a sort of wisdom now in the country, an understanding that's widespread ... that this project is a national project," Thamir Ghadhban said.

"Therefore we will expect a smooth transition and an enduring commitment of the future government to whatever commitments this government is taking regarding oil contracts in the first and second rounds."

A new oil law was to be the framework for long-term investment, but sharp differences between Baghdad and the Kurdish region have delayed the legislation for years. Without it, Iraq is relying on Saddam-era laws untested in a democracy.

DEALS

The Iraqi government is close to sealing three deals for oilfields that were left unclaimed in the first round.

The final contract with BP (BP.L) and China's CNPC to develop the super giant Rumaila, its largest oilfield, could be signed within three weeks, the first major new oilfield deal since the invasion, an Iraqi official said on Monday. [ID:nLJ710451]. Cabinet approved the deal last week.

France's Total (TOTF.PA) and a consortium led by China's CNPC have revised bids to develop West Qurna, Abdul-Mahdy al-Ameedi, deputy director of the Oil Ministry's licensing office, said at a news conference in Istanbul.

They will compete against consortiums headed by Exxon Mobil (XOM.N) and LUKOIL (LKOH.MM) who have also revised bids [ID:nLJ102592]

The Iraqi cabinet is also now considering approval for a contract won by a group led by Italy's ENI (ENI.MI) for the Zubair oilfield. Production at Rumaila, Zubair and West Qurna could almost triple Iraq's output to 7 million barrels per day.

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