For more than three decades, foreign oil companies wanting into Iraq have been like children pressed against the sweet shop window - desperately seeking to feast on the goodies but having no way of getting through the door.
That could soon change.
The Iraqi Council of Ministers is expected to approve, as early as today, a controversial new hydrocarbon law, heavily pushed by the US and UK governments, that will radically redraw the Iraqi oil industry and throw open the doors to the third-largest oil reserves in the world. It would allow the first large-scale operation of foreign oil companies in the country since the industry was nationalised in 1972.
It would also be a shot in the arm for the global petroleum industry. The biggest oil companies are finding it ever harder to uncover new reserves to replace those that are going dry. Iraq sits on a sea of easily tapped, high-quality crude.
For a sector desperate for a panacea, the stakes couldn't be higher. By conservative estimates, Iraq represents about one-tenth of the world's reserves at 115 billion barrels. Most of this is untapped or under-exploited. Former oil minister Issam Al-Chalabi was quoted recently saying that a fully functioning Iraqi oil industry could generate $100bn (ú52bn) in annual revenue.
The new legislation "is a redrawing of the whole Iraqi oil industry into a modern standard," said Khaled Salih, a spokesman for the Kurdish Regional Government, a party in the negotiations. "It will allow new technologies to come in to revitalise the oil industry and allow foreign investors to invest long-term in Iraq and upgrade infrastructure."
Iraqi government sources say the hope is to have the law on the books by March.
No one expects big players such as Exxon, BP and Shell to jump into the country until the security situation stabilises. They are jockeying to stake their claims now for exploitation later. "It's a mad rush to get something there," said James Paul, the executive director of Global Policy Forum, a New York watchdog group. "The companies are saying, 'Before any troops are withdrawn, we have to have these contracts.' "
So why are the oil companies so desperate to get a foot in the door? For one, they are struggling to keep production increasing in line with demand, which last year rose to more than 82 million barrels a day. Those rises have been driven in large part by the growth of the Chinese economy. The tide of oil nationalism in places such as Venezuela, where the stranglehold applied by President Hugo Chavez on the industry has led to lower production, has shifted more pressure on to the rest of the industry.
Also, the cost-per-barrel of extracting oil in Iraq is among the lowest in the world because the reserves are relatively close to the surface . This contrasts starkly with the expensive and risky lengths to which the oil industry must go to find new reserves elsewhere - witness the super-deep offshore drilling and cost-intensive techniques needed to extract oil form Canada's tar sands.
"The majors are finding it increasingly difficult to locate actual black oil resources," said Praveen Martis, an analyst at research firm Wood Mackenzie.
The most coveted sites in Iraq are the Majnoon and West Qurna fields, both close to Basra in the south of the country. Together, they fields represent nearly a quarter of Iraq's proven reserves. Total and Russia's Lukoil had deals in place with Saddam Hussein's government on the Majnoon and West Qurna fields respectively.
It is arguable whether these contracts are still valid, and Exxon is now seen by insiders as the frontrunner to nab the rights to the Majnoon field.
Other parts of the country, such as the Western desert, remain virtually unexplored and could be home to large reserves.
Critical to whether the petro-leum industry will be able to exploit Iraq's buried treasure will be the introduction of production-sharing agreements (PSAs). These are contracts that allow the state to retain legal ownership of its reserves but let international companies share in the profits from extracting oil, in exchange for investing in the infrastructure and operation of the wells, pipelines and refineries. The agreements would be the key to the sweeping development of the Iraqi industry by international companies.
According to an early draft of the legislation that was sent to oil companies this past summer and obtained by The Independent on Sunday, PSAs are the centrepiece of the new legal framework.
Their introduction would be a first for a major Middle Eastern power and is sure to be highly contentious. Saudi Arabia and Iran, the world's number one and two producers, both control their industries tightly with no appreciable foreign company collaboration. According to the Iraqi draft legislation, the PSAs could be fixed for as long as 30 years, which would provide a welcome framework in which the companies could work. Though they are preferred by the oil industry, PSAs don't always guarantee profits for Western companies.
The Russian government depended heavily on PSAs in the 1990s when it was far weaker economically than it is now. The Kremlin has since made moves to wind back these agreements. The most notorious instance came last month when Shell was forced to cede a controlling stake in the $20bn Sakhalin 2 oil and gas project back to the Russian state-owned gas giant Gazprom, after months of brinkmanship from the Kremlin.
Yet for all the black gold that lies under the sand of the Iraqi desert, any potential payoff for Western oil giants is years off. An enormous amount of work remains to be done. The infra-structure is decrepit and patchy after years of neglect, and there is the risk of sabotage and wars. The country is in a state of near anarchy and the debate about the ownership and exploitation of its main asset, which accounts for nearly all of Iraq's GDP and export revenues, is still to be had.
But if the new hydrocarbon proposals pass through their fledgling parliament, the Iraqi people will be forced to share their buried treasure with the West's oil giants.
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