Iraqi Kurds’ Independence Vote Exposed Risks to Energy Strategy

Iraqi Kurds’ Independence Vote Exposed Risks to Energy Strategy

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Marginalized and brutally oppressed under Saddam, Kurdistan has sought a piece of the global oil action. The energy consultants Wood Mackenzie peg total potential oil and gas holdings in the region at about 13 billion barrels, and Kurdish officials have worked to attract investment from international oil companies. They offered advantageous revenue-sharing agreements to foreign firms, a stark contrast to the low-margin fixed-fee deals offered by Baghdad.

To some global companies, the rewards were attractive. Kurdistan offered easily extractable oil in a politically friendly environment, without the huge costs and environmental risks of drilling in the Arctic or mining the tar sands in Canada. Energy giants like Chevron and Exxon Mobil shrugged off the threats of legal action by the Iraqi government and the displeasure of Washington by signing contracts with the Kurdish region at a time when oil prices were significantly higher than they are now.

The energy companies wanted to see whether large troves of oil lurked below the hills of Kurdistan, as exist elsewhere in Iraq and in neighboring Iran.

But the luster of those prospects has since faded. Drilling has not produced the large finds they had hoped for, leading companies to back off. Chevron said recently that it was suspending operations in Kurdistan. Total of France relinquished its exploration blocks last year, taking a $200 million write-down. Analysts say the poor exploration results, combined with world oil prices that have fallen off from their peak above $100 a barrel, raise doubts about the value of continuing to invest in Kurdistan.

Iraqi federal government forces retook several oil fields around the disputed city of Kirkuk, with Kurdish troops withdrawing.

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Ahmad Al-Rubaye/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“It is not a play that is working for the majors,” said Ian Thom, head of Middle East analysis at Wood Mackenzie. “They have bigger fish to fry.”

Some of the smaller companies that originally opened up Kurdistan to exploratory drilling have also struggled. Genel Energy — the London-listed company co-founded and led until 2015 by the former BP chief executive Tony Hayward — has in the past two years sharply downgraded its estimates of the volumes in the Taq Taq field, one of its two Kurdish mainstays. Output from the field has plummeted to about 14,000 barrels a day compared with 128,000 barrels a day in early 2015.

The region now finds itself exporting around 250,000 barrels of oil a day, just a quarter of what it optimistically estimated a few years ago, according to Ruba Husari, managing director of the consulting firm Iraq Insight.

These disappointments were largely masked by the giant oil fields seized in recent years by Kurdish fighters, known as the pesh merga. As Iraq reeled from the Islamic State’s onslaught in 2014, the pesh merga took control of some of the energy producing areas near Kirkuk. Holding those fields allowed Kurdistan to increase exports to about 550,000 barrels a day, with roughly half of it coming from Kirkuk, according to Ms. Husari. Those advances, however, have largely been reversed.

Beyond the short-term issues resulting from the independence vote, longer-term problems persist.

For one, Massoud Barzani, Kurdistan’s longtime regional president, has said he will leave his post. That could create a power vacuum, threatening the region’s domestic stability and complicating talks with the federal government and neighbors like Turkey. The landlocked region remains dependent on good relations with Ankara, and probably still with Baghdad, to move its oil and gas to market.

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The Kurds and the federal government have also never agreed on how to share oil revenue, or how to handle oil concessions in Kurdistan — or even what territory constitutes the Kurdish region. With Kurdistan’s attraction fading as an energy bet, those concerns may loom larger in industry calculations.

Such issues pose a threat to the Kurdish independence bid. The regional government is struggling to pay Civil Service salaries and manage its debts to oil companies. And Iraq could take legal action against buyers of crude from Kurdistan.

“Kurdistan has lost its revenue lifeline and it’s far from certain it can continue its independence push in these circumstances,” said Bill Farren-Price, president of Petroleum Policy Intelligence, a market research firm.

How far Baghdad will go is not yet clear, but it is not standing pat.

About 15 percent of Iraq’s oil sales are transported via a pipeline that runs through parts of Kurdistan. With some of the oil from the fields around Kirkuk shut in, the federal government is ramping up exports from its southern oil terminals.

Baghdad also wants BP, which helped to develop the Kirkuk fields and had been providing technical assistance there until 2015, to assist in rejuvenating them. David Nicholas, a BP spokesman, acknowledged that the company met with Iraq’s oil minister just after Iraq retook Kirkuk to discuss several issues, including the oil field and BP’s “potential support.”

BP might be able to coax more oil from the Kirkuk fields. If so, both Baghdad and the Kurds, who are constitutionally entitled to a slice of the nation’s oil revenue, might benefit.

“The Kirkuk field is an amazing resource, but has not been managed to its full potential,” said Rob West, an analyst at the market research firm Redburn. “That’s an incentive for Kurdistan and Baghdad to cooperate.”

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