The fight for Iraqi oil will intensify
By Eurasia Group analyst Willis Sparks The Iraqi government draws 95 percent of its revenue from oil production. Every plan its political leaders can imagine will depend on reliable access to oil profits, and every political faction knows that the country can’t achieve lasting political stability until a durable agreement is reached on who owns ...
By Eurasia Group analyst Willis Sparks
The Iraqi government draws 95 percent of its revenue from oil production. Every plan its political leaders can imagine will depend on reliable access to oil profits, and every political faction knows that the country can’t achieve lasting political stability until a durable agreement is reached on who owns the estimated 115 billion barrels of reserves and who holds the right to sell them. As tens of thousands of US troops withdraw from the country over the first eight months of 2010, competition for control of that oil will intensify.
After years of haggling, Iraq’s political leaders have yet to reach agreement on a hydrocarbon law that determines how oil profits will be divided among the country’s competing factions — a plan that is necessary to revive an energy sector that has suffered from years of under-investment — and a steep drop in oil prices from $147 per barrel last July to less than $65 today.
Plans to attract badly needed investment and technical expertise from international oil companies face serious political obstacles. Many Iraqis continue to believe that the United States invaded Iraq to grab control of its oil. As Iraq fell under foreign military occupation, its would-be political leaders discovered that pledges to protect Iraqi oil for Iraqis boosted their personal popularity. Support for opening the country’s oil sector to Western companies won’t win many votes in upcoming parliamentary elections, now scheduled for January.
Political competition for control of the country’s oil will sharply intensify next year. The post-Saddam constitution stipulates that Iraq’s natural resources belong to the Iraqi people. But different political factions read this idea in different ways. The document also provides that “the federal government, with the producing governorates and regional governments, shall undertake the management of oil and gas extracted from present fields.” Some interpret this clause to mean that the central government in Baghdad has the right to manage Iraq’s oil. Provincial leaders argue that this stipulation gives local governments the right to exploit resources located on their territory, especially in newly discovered fields.
This is the dispute that generates constant tensions between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Kurdish leaders, ever ready to assert the KRG’s political and economic autonomy and much less resistant to doing business with Western companies, claim the right to formulate their own energy strategy and to award contracts to international oil firms. Baghdad insists these contracts are invalid and has “blacklisted” companies that invest in the Kurdish region. This multilevel game of chicken stokes political instability and fuels mutual suspicion.
And though the two sides managed to agree on an improvised revenue-sharing scheme that gives the KRG 17 percent of the profits from the oil exploited on its territory, the lack of an established energy law limits the inflows of investment that Iraq’s rusting energy sector badly needs if it’s going to maintain current levels of production — let alone expand output.
The Iraqi government has now received its wake-up call. On June 30, Baghdad launched an international bid round to offer service contracts for field development. Iraqi officials calculated that access to some of the country’s vast reserves would persuade reluctant firms to ignore the considerable political and security risks and jump into Iraq’s oil sector. They gambled that the bid round would make for good television, broadcasting it across the country. They were wrong. Oil Minister Hussein al Shahristani now faces an uncertain political future.
As Iraq moves toward the next parliamentary elections scheduled for January 2010, oil will remain at the heart of every political debate. And as US troops begin to leave the country in large numbers, the Iraqi government will need steady flows of oil revenue to finance reconstruction of the country, further development of Iraq’s army and police forces, and the social spending needed to provide Iraqis with basic services. Until Iraq’s various political factions forge the political compromises necessary for equitable sharing of oil profits, and until large-scale outside investment in oil infrastructure expands production and export capacity, there will be plenty to fight over and no guarantee that Iraq can be rebuilt.
MARWAN IBRAHIM/AFP/Getty Images
Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media. He is also the host of the television show GZERO World With Ian Bremmer. Twitter: @ianbremmer
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