Iraq aims to power out of war into oil big league

BAGHDAD Sat Dec 12, 2009 10:59am EST

1 of 2. Abdullah Bin Karim of Petronas (R) and other representatives of the world's largest energy firms attend the second round of bidding for Iraqi's oilfields in Baghdad December 12, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Thaier al-Sudani

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BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq, emerging from the shadow of war, expects to boost its oil output to rival the level of top producer Saudi Arabia after awarding some of its most attractive oilfields to global oil companies this week.

By the end on Saturday of a two-day bidding round for 10 oil contracts -- the second auction since the 2003 U.S. invasion -- Iraq had received pledges from oil firms to boost its output by 4.765 million barrels per day, almost double its current output.

If all deals from a first auction in June, the second this weekend and others being negotiated are added to national production, Iraq will have a capacity of 12 million barrels per day, overtaking Russia and challenging Saudi Arabia's 12.5 million bpd, Oil Minister Hussain al-Shahristani said.

"This second round marked a major success for the Iraqi government and the Oil Ministry," government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told Reuters.

Some 30 international oil companies braved the threat of violence and attacks to come to Iraq, putting aside security concerns just days after car bombs killed 112 people in Baghdad.

Oil majors from the United States appeared conspicuously uninterested in the fields on offer in the second round, confounding expectations that they might end up with the lion's share of Iraq's oil sector as a result of the U.S.-led war.

Security may still be an issue. The series of car bombs on Tuesday was the third major assault on government buildings in Baghdad in four months and a bloody reminder of the fragile security as Iraq heads into a general election in March.

Thousands of Iraqi soldiers and police were deployed in the streets of the capital to protect the auction and army helicopters buzzed overhead. Oil executives traveled around town in convoys of armored SUVs with armed guards.

FIERCE COMPETITION

Amid fierce competition, a group led by Russian energy giant Lukoil won a deal to develop the West Qurna Phase Two oilfield, which with 12.9 billion barrels of reserves is one of the world's largest untapped "supergiant" fields.

Supergiants are fields of 5 billion barrels or more.

On the first day of the auction on Friday, the 12.6 billion barrel supergiant Majnoon field went to a partnership of Royal Dutch Shell and Malaysia's Petronas.

The Russian company's win of West Qurna is made sweeter by the fact it had lobbied unsuccessfully since the 2003 U.S. invasion to revive a Saddam Hussein-era contract for the field.

"The terrorists tried to send a message to the companies through the bombings ... that Iraq is unstable and investment will be overshadowed by risks," Shahristani told state television on Friday night.

"But this message was not delivered and never deceived them. They came and submitted competitive offers that surprised the global oil industry."

Only two of the five fields on offer on Friday were initially awarded as oil firms steered clear of more dangerous or troublesome areas, including the supergiant East Baghdad oilfield that lies in part under Baghdad's Sadr City slum and fields in the north where violence is still rife.

The Qayara field in the north near the violent city of Mosul, which was not awarded on Friday, was won by Angolan state-oil firm Sonangol on Saturday after the company changed its mind about accepting the government's proposed $5 per barrel fee. Sonangol had wanted more than twice that.

DOOR OPEN ONLY FOR A WHILE

Sonangol on Saturday also won another northern field, Najmah, after accepting a lower fee than it wanted.

But for other fields, the companies actually asked for less than the government was willing to pay.

"They were astonishingly low figures. But 2009 will be remembered as the year that Iraq opened its door to the international oil companies and then shut it. It's 10 fields and that's it," said a senior oil executive.

"So it's strategic for the oil firms, either you are here or you aren't and this is the chance."

Royal Dutch Shell and Malaysia's Petronas won Majnoon with a proposed a fee of $1.39 per barrel and pledging to increase output to 1.8 million bpd, more than double what Iraq expected.

Halfaya, with 4.1 billion barrels of reserves, was some consolation. CNPC, Total and Petronas won it with a fee of $1.40 per barrel and a plateau production target of 535,000 bpd.

The Lukoil and Statoil partnership for West Qurna Phase Two proposed a fee per barrel of $1.15 and a plateau production level of 1.8 million bpd.

The smaller Gharaf field was won by Malaysia's Petronas and Japanese oil company Japex, with a fee of $1.49 per barrel and plateau output target of 230,000 bpd.

Other winners were a group led by Russia's Gazprom for a deal to develop the Badrah oilfield. The group agreed to a $5.50 per barrel fee and a production target of 170,000 bpd.

Shahristani told companies that did not manage to grab an oilfield contract not to worry -- Iraq had "scores" of other fields, including supergiants, left to offer, he said.

(Additional reporting by Mohammed Abbas, Ayla Jean Yackley, Aseel Kami, Khalid al-Ansary and Missy Ryan; Writing by Michael Christie; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Victoria Main)

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