Friday, November 06, 2009

Cheap Oil

When the US invaded Ba'athist Iraq, many ascribed that action to a desire to seize the country's vast oil reserves and develop them on terms favorable to us, presumably to keep the days of cheap oil rolling on. After six years of oil prices far above their pre-war level, the last vestiges of that theory should be laid to rest by a careful reading of today's headlines concerning the announced production deal between the Iraqi government and ExxonMobil and Shell. The terms looks anything but lucrative for the Supermajors, which have won the opportunity to revamp output at one of Iraq's largest mature oil fields, West Qurna. However paltry the returns might look for the firms involved, this development could have a bigger impact on oil price--and sooner--than some of the splashier recent announcements concerning big oil finds off Brazil and West Africa.

The reported terms of the deal struck by Exxon and Shell in Iraq continue the trend of allowing access only on the basis of working as contractors, rather than as partners with an ownership interest in the underlying resource via a typical production-sharing contract. According to the story in today's Wall St. Journal, the companies will receive just $1.90 per barrel for their efforts to boost the flagging output of the super-giant West Qurna field, the output of which could increase by more than the current oil production of Texas (including the Gulf of Mexico.) Moreover, because the project entails virtually no exploration risk--the reserves are well-established--and minimal technical risk, and is already connected to infrastructure, the only real limitation on how fast it could begin ramping up is the local security environment and the ability of the firms to line up equipment and workers. This will still require several years, but it should happen a lot quicker than the time required to develop a new field with tricky geology in deep water.

So what does this mean? Well, for ExxonMobil and Shell it offers a relatively quick boost in production and revenue. $1.90/bbl is skimpy compared to what companies can make on their own discoveries, but over volumes this large it could translate into an extra $700 million of annual cash flow for the next 20 years. As attractive as that sounds, though, it comes without the ability to book new reserves, which are so critical to the valuations of oil companies.

The implication for oil prices will depend on many other factors, but the steady growth of Iraq's oil production from the current 2.5 million bbl/day to a level commensurate with the country's reported 115 billion bbls of reserves could at least compensate for some large declines elsewhere and help maintain a reasonable cushion of spare production capacity as the global economy gets back on track. This hardly bodes a return to $20 oil prices--an eventuality that would be much less welcome in the carbon-constrained world we're entering than just a few years ago--but it could buy us enough time for fuel efficiency and vehicle electrification to match Peak Demand to an inevitable peak in global production.

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