Iran and Iraq are Opec’s biggest wild cards

Iran and Iraq have taken over from North American shale oil as the biggest wild card facing Opec and the world oil market in the year ahead, according to a number of leading market analysts.

New research by the Edinburghoil consultancy Wood Mackenzie, for example, reckons that the combined additional production from the two countries could be running as much as 500,000 to 600,000 barrels per day (bpd) higher in the coming months. On the other hand, the volatile conditions the two countries face mean output from the two could end up little changed, the consultancy adds.

If the higher forecasts prove correct, the extra oil would significantly increase the surplus already swamping the market, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA) based in Paris.

The dominant factor on the supply front for more than a year has been North American oil production, as it climbed to record levels when world demand was tapering off.

The huge surge in US production – nearly doubling from 2008’s low point of 5 million bpd to the recent levels of 9.6m bpd – and the refusal by Saudi Arabia and its allies to bow to pressure and cut Opec’s production, has meant supply has been outstripping demand by more than 1m bpd for months, filling up storage tanks around the world to near capacity.

Benchmark oil prices slumped from $115 a barrel last summer to a February low of $45, before recovering to trade at around $65 a barrel since April as US production levelled off.

Saudi oil officials claimed at this month’s Opec meeting in Vienna that the slowdown by higher-cost producers vindicated its policy.

Now, however, the prospect of additional Iran and Iraq oil supply looms and Opec has no policy to accommodate it.

The Iranian oil minister Bijan Zanganeh said this month Iran could increase production by 1m bpd within seven months of sanctions being lifted, bringing it back to its 2011 pre-sanctions level of 3.7m bpd.

Most analysts think that is way too optimistic. Wood Mckenzie belives Iran could be pumping an additional 400,000bpd by this time next year, with another 200,000bpd coming on in 2017.

Iraq, meanwhile, could add another 200,000bpd by next year too, as the country continues to increase production of its Basrah Heavy crude grade, which started hitting the market this month, as well as increasing exports from the Kurdish region.

But Wood Mackenzie, in common with other analysts, says the outlook has many volatile variables.

The most obvious for Iran is whether or not it can finalise a deal on sanctions related to its nuclear programme after a preliminary agreement was reached with international negotiators in April.

Wood Mackenzie’s “low case” scenario – if the nuclear deal falls through – would leave output and exports unchanged.

Another uncertainty is over the state of repair of Iran’s oilfields – whether the period of idleness for some reservoirs will make it difficult to bring them back into production. Either scenario is possible.

Related to that will be how fast Iran can attract international oil companies’ investment – the oil ministry has been working for months on the politically risky task of improving contracts to offer international oil companies. Even before sanctions closed off Iran to most foreign investment, its contracts were deemed a failure, providing only minuscule returns for most companies.

Wood Mackenzie’s “high case” scenario for Iranian oil production, with production rising from 2.7m bpd to 3.1m bpd next year and 3.3m bpd in 2017, depends not only on a sanctions deal, but on everything else going right too, says Homayoun Falakshahi, Wood Mackenzie’s Iran analyst.

As for Iraq, IEA’s Peg Mackey points out that it has been pumping at post-1979 record levels of 3.6m bpd this – up from last year’s 3.3m bpd – with exports at record levels above 3m bpd, mostly due to increased shipments through Turkey from the Kirkuk oilfield. That is owned by the central government but operated by the Kurdistan Regional Government.

The government in Baghdad has budgeted for exports to average 3.3m bpd this year, but that depends on the KRG continuing to export Kirkuk and other oil through the north, a deal that is under threat because of a lack of payment by the central government.

Also the central government needs to keep paying international oil companies so they will invest in infrastructure in the south needed to boost exports, particularly the Basrah Heavy crude that it started exporting in June.

But the central government’s budget is under severe strain.

“The external [oil price] shock, combined with security and humanitarian spending pressures, is weighing on fiscal performance,” according to Carlo Sdralevich of the IMF, who visited the country in March for the bank’s regular assessment of its economy. He said the budget deficit was reduced last year only because the central government postponed investment spending and suspended payments to the KRG.

“Arrears to the international oil companies were also accumulated,” Mr Sdralevich points out, adding that the deficit this year already is expected to balloon from 3 per cent of GDP to 12 per cent and could well be much more if the government makes overdue but unbudgeted payments to international oil companies.

The budget strain “means there is less left over to reimburse the international oil companies developing the country’s southern oilfields”, Ms Mackey says. “Baghdad has advised them to go slow and has, as a result, revised down its ambitious 2020 production target of 9m bpd to 6m bpd. Our [forecast] shows output capacity rising to 4.7m bpd by the end of the decade.”

Jessica Brewer, who covers Iraq for Wood Mackenzie, says she sees production rising to 3.7m bpd next year. But she says it could be more – 100,000 to 200,000 bpd more – if the infrastructure investment is made to boost exports in the south. Conversely, it could be nearly 200,000bpd less if the KRG deal breaks down and exports form the Kirkuk field are cut.

One common factor for both countries is the urgent need to revamp their contracts for international oil companies. Iran’s constitution forbids it from offering foreign companies a direct stake in oil projects, but Mr Falakshahi says the oil ministry is looking at clever ways that would both offer an attractive floating fee per barrel to companies, while also allowing them to count the barrels they are entitled to in their books.

“It would be the only reason the oil companies would be attracted to Iran,” he says. Under the previous “buy back” contracts regime, companies had targeted returns of about 13 per cent, but most ended up making virtually no return.

Iraq has a different problem under its “service contract” regime, but is also urgently looking to renegotiate better deals. The contracts worked for the government when oil prices were high, says Ms Brewer, but since prices collapsed, the country has ended up having to hand over twice as many barrels of oil in payment to the companies.

All the uncertainty may explain why Opec has no policy in place to deal with extra output from Iran and Iraq. But as the holders of the third and fourth-largest oil reserves in the world – more than 300 billion barrels combined, compared with Saudi Arabia’s 268 billion barrels – they are likely to be the next big issue the producer group has to deal with.

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