World and Nation

Now With Foothold in Iraq, Oil Companies Look to the Future

More than six and a half years after the U.S.-led invasion here that many believed was about oil, the major oil companies are finally gaining access to Iraq’s petroleum reserves. But they are doing so at far less advantageous terms than they once envisioned.

The companies seem to have calculated that it is worth their while to accept deals with limited profit opportunities now, in order to cash in on more lucrative development deals in the future, oil industry analysts say.

“The attraction of these fields to oil companies is not the per-barrel profit, which is very low, but their value as an entrance ticket to the oil sector of southern Iraq,” said Reidar Visser, a research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs who operates an Iraq Web site, Historiae. “In terms of size and potential, the Basra region remains one of the most attractive areas of future growth for the international oil industry.”

Iraq’s first stab at opening its oil industry to foreign investment ended in disappointment at an auction in June in which most companies declined to bid. But last month many of those same companies — including Exxon Mobil and Occidental Petroleum, the first American companies to reach production agreements with Baghdad since the 2003 invasion — signed deals at much the same terms they rejected over the summer.

Analysts say the deals on three of the country’s top fields show that Iraq, after an embarrassing start, may be on a path to joining the world’s major oil-producing nations, which could in turn upset the equilibrium in OPEC and increase tensions with the neighboring oil giants Iran and Saudi Arabia. Adding to those strains, development rights to 10 other Iraqi oil fields will be offered to foreign companies at a public auction in Baghdad on Dec. 11.

However, the auction and the contracts come at an awkward time: just months before national elections that could provoke renewed violence or sweep in a new government that could disown the deals.

In the recent deals, the major oil companies have agreed to accept service contracts, in which they earn a fee for each barrel of oil produced. Yet they vastly prefer production-sharing agreements, in which they gain an equity stake in the oil itself. Such deals are far more lucrative to oil companies, but for Iraqis they are reminiscent of the colonial era, when foreign companies controlled the country’s oil wealth.

“We have shown that we can attract international companies to invest in Iraq and boost production through service contracts,” Hussain al-Shahristani, Iraq’s oil minister, said recently. “They will not have a share of Iraqi oil, and our country will have total control over production.”

But Iraq has also been forced to acknowledge that it cannot hope to revive its decrepit oil industry without the money and the technical expertise of the major companies. Despite strong anti-American sentiments among the Iraqi public, few officials want to refuse American cash.

“We do not have any preferences,” said Abdul Hadi al-Hassani, deputy chairman of Parliament’s Oil and Gas Committee. “We are interested only in the financial health of the company and in their technical know-how. American companies are well known in the oil sector.”