To Bust Sanctions, Iraq Dangles Lure of Very Cheap Oil

Back in 1995, Iraq, at a public seminar in Baghdad, tempted an oil-hungry world by proclaiming with great fanfare its menu of opportunities: a list of oil fields that had been discovered, delineated, and were "ready to go."

Two disclosures last week heightened that temptation, and raised the ante in Iraq's campaign to win international support for ending the US-UN sanctions by dangling the lure of cheap oil.

First, Iraq has confirmed that the oil fields now on offer for development are not only among the largest untapped fields in the world, but also the lowest cost: one-tenth the cost of new discoveries in the US or Canada and one-third that of the North Sea.

Second, the Ministry of Petroleum in Baghdad announced that oil production could bounce back to 3.5 million barrels a day of production, the pre-Gulf war level, within six months - and almost double that within five years.

Non-US oil companies are frustrated. If not for the US posture against Iraq, they say, they could share in the greatest oil bonanza since Britain and the United States vied for control of Saudi Arabian oil in the 1930s.

Italy, France, Russia, and China are already reported to have laid the groundwork for oil-production deals with Iraq.

For now, Iraq's wealth remains shut in, and its lost Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries quota has been divided up and given to its rivals, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. This causes bitterness among Arab commentators and suspicions among US allies. They all stress that the US, in profiting from military sales to these Gulf allies, has a strong motive to continue the sanctions.

At a business conference last week in Nicosia, Faleh al-Khayyat, director of planning in Iraq's Oil Ministry, pointed out just how cheap Iraqi oil can be. Indicated production costs ranged between 50 cents and $1 per barrel - compared with $4 to $8 in the US. Dr. Khayyat clarified that costs are in fact less. First, he noted, there is no exploration risk whatsoever - the fields now being negotiated with foreign partners have long since been discovered. Second, most have actually been partly developed.

There is some independent corroboration of the low costs. Foreign companies - obviously loath to be identified - have reviewed the well logs and other test data to assess their own possible investments. The consensus is that ministry figures on costs and reserves are generally conservative.

Other indicators support the low cost structure. The fields are onshore, reducing costs compared with the industry trend elsewhere to move increasingly into expensive offshore areas. The wells are also shallow and relatively cheap to drill, and the fields are dramatically prolific compared with ones in the US, Russia, or Kuwait - the ministry claims that an average flow rate of 4,000 barrels a day per well should be expected, with some areas yielding 10,000 per well or more. This compares with a few hundred barrels a day in Venezuela, for example, and much less in the US or Canada.

Now only the US stands between Iraq and its oil wealth. The major bottleneck in restoring production to pre-war levels is building storage and repairing terminals. In six months, 3 million barrels per day can be reached, using only "national efforts." Then, Iraq will be looking abroad for partners.

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