With or Without Exxon, Iraq Kurds Strive for Energy Autonomy
By Isabel Coles
Behind the closed doors of their offices in the United States, top executives and lawyers for Exxon Mobil are poring over two sets of contracts, weighing a decision that could shift the balance of power in Iraq.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki last week hastily convened a meeting with Exxon’s chief executive Rex Tillerson in a bid to woo back the U.S. major, which had seemed intent on pulling out of the $50 billion West Qurna 1 oilfield in the south, in an area under Baghdad’s control.
Since signing for six blocs with the Kurdistan regional government in 2011, Exxon has situated itself on one of Iraq’s deepest faultlines, bringing to a head friction between the northern enclave and Baghdad, which says only it has the authority to grant oil contacts and control crude exports.
Industry sources say Maliki has offered Tillerson substantial incentives to stay in Iraq’s southern oilfields as long as the company forfeits its assets in the autonomous Kurdish region.
A final decision is due within the next few days, Iraqi Oil Minister Abdul Kareem Luaibi said on Sunday. It remains to be seen which way Exxon’s compass will swing. The company has declined to comment on the impending decision.
“The loss of prestige would be huge,” said a former U.S. diplomat, contemplating the fallout for Kurdistan if Exxon were to quit the region in favor of Baghdad. “Exxon’s presence here levels the political playing field.”
As the first major oil company to risk Baghdad’s ire by venturing north, Exxon afforded the Kurds a victory in their turf war with the central government over how to exploit Iraq’s hydrocarbon riches.
The U.S. major’s vote of confidence opened the door for others such as Total, Russia’s Gazprom Neft and Chevron Corp, which recently added a third bloc to its Kurdish portfolio and is eyeing further acquisitions.
Three of Exxon’s blocs, however, are located in the “disputed areas”, an oil-rich band of territory over which both Baghdad and the Kurds claim jurisdiction and where the Iraqi army and Kurdish troops are facing off against each other.
Industry sources say Tillerson raised concerns about security at a meeting in Switzerland with the Iraqi Kurdish region’s president, Masoud Barzani, although Kurdistan said later that Exxon had restated its commitment to working in the region.
But Baghdad also expects Exxon to take its side.
“We’re positive the company is not willing to quit West Qurna,” said an Iraqi Oil Ministry official, noting that output from that field alone exceeds total current Kurdish production capacity.
“We think Exxon will halt operations in Kurdistan and wait until a solution is reached to all the unresolved issues,” he added, asking to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
New legislation to govern the world’s fourth largest oil reserves has been caught up for years in a struggle over how to share power between Iraq’s Sunni, Shi’ite and Kurdish factions, which has intensified since U.S. troops withdrew a year ago.
The Kurds say the right to dictate their own oil policy is enshrined in the country’s federal constitution, but Baghdad rejects contracts signed by the region as illegal and has blacklisted some firms operating there.
International oil companies have been prepared to take that risk in return for Kurdistan’s better contract terms, security and an easier working environment, as opposed to the bureaucracy and infrastructure bottlenecks that hamper oil projects in the rest of Iraq.
Baghdad would have to promise Exxon favorable terms to entice it away from the north, but analysts and industry sources doubt Maliki’s capacity to deliver those, and say it would be a mistake for him to do so.
“If they go for Baghdad, I’m sure they (Exxon) will want sweeteners,” said a senior executive from a rival company. “But if they get better terms, others will want the same.”
Some industry sources even suggested that may have been part of Exxon’s calculations all along: that when defying Baghdad the company figured it might eventually be able to use its Kurdish contracts as leverage to extract concessions in the south.
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