Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government’s Oil Policy, An Interview With KBC Advanced Technologies' Samuel Ciszuk


Samuel Ciszuk is a consultant with KBC Advanced Technologies, and is one of the leading analysts on Middle East oil. He is regularly quoted in the press for his insight on Iraq’s energy industry. Below is an interview with Ciszuk about the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) oil policy, and its relationship with Baghdad and Turkey. His views come at an important time as major energy companies are moving into Kurdistan, and a new deal has just been worked out between the regional and central governments over oil exports.

Environment In Kurdistan

1. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Iraq’s Oil Ministry have taken different approaches to developing the country’s natural resources. One is that the KRG offers production sharing agreements (PSAs) rather than Baghdad’s technical service agreements (TSAs). Can you explain the advantages of PSAs?

The main advantage of PSAs over TSAs is that the PSAs provide the international oil company (IOC) with a defined share of the production or you could say reserves, which the company is guaranteed to get, which is why opponents still brand it as ownership of reserves. This means that IOCs can put the share of the reserves they will be able to produce during the duration of the contract down as an asset on their balance sheet, benefitting company valuation (shareholders/share price) and that they can take out bank loans with the share as collateral.

The latter is very important, as under the TSAs the companies will have to undertake the massive projects without being able to raise debt to finance them. Hence only very large companies are able to undertake these projects, as they can raise billions in any case elsewhere, and invest into the projects.

Another important difference is that PSAs offer flexibility. The share remains the same, regardless of whether project costs and/or oil prices go up or down, removing at least one level of uncertainty. The TSAs offer a fixed fee, more or less as one would pay a company to repaint one’s house, for a job, which will take many years and hence risks being squeezed by project inflation or general inflation, for instance.

2. Another difference between the two is the business environment and bureaucracy. Why have companies said those two factors are better in Kurdistan?

The Iraqi Kurdistan legal framework is a relatively recent creation, and has been set up with investor attractiveness in mind, given the need of the region to emerge from the isolation of the 90s, and build a viable private sector-oriented economy almost from scratch. The Iraqi legal framework on the other hand carries the legacy of decades of socialist, statist economy, and from the 90s also a deep lack of international business interaction. The same can be said about the respective bureaucracies. In particular in Iraq’s case, the lack of experience in dealing with international private companies has proven to be one reason why things move slowly, as the “culture” of the bureaucracy has been if not anti-business, then at least not really been used to fathom business logic.

3. Are those the reasons why major IOCs like Exxon, Chevron, Total, and Gazprom have recently decided to invest in Kurdistan? Are there other factors at play?

No and yes. The reasons why IOCs –including super majors- enter an area is because they sense/see hydrocarbon opportunities there of a scale attractive to them. Hence, as the initial wildcatters proved up significant reserves, larger and larger companies got interested. For an oilfield/potential oilfield to register on the radar of a super major, it has to be much more substantial than for a minnow.

Yes, because the uncertainties in Iraq (cost inflation, slow bureaucracy, shortages of skills, overregulation) are keeping margins very tight, while opportunities in the KRG look more reasonable. At the same time, no super major has yet abandoned an upstream project in Iraq proper.

Particularly when you compare Iraq’s last exploration auction in May 2012, which had very few takers in the licensing round, particularly not any experienced ones, to the KRG ones, it is clear that it makes little sense to explore in virgin areas of Iraq, when one can go to the KRG. This is even as the potential volumes to discover likely are much larger in for instance western Iraq than in the KRG. The difference boils down to the flexibility issue between the contracts. When you add the uncertainties about whether you will find anything, what you will find (oil/gas/NGLs), and how much of it, to a TSA, it is very hard to make it work economically.

IOCs in Kurdistan

4. The KRG has only been able to export three times after deals with Baghdad. If companies there can’t export, what kind of work are they doing in Kurdistan?

IOCs have so far largely undertaken the initial work programs/spending they committed to when signing their contracts. Drilling a few wells and –hopefully- firming up reserves. Some have then more cautiously moved on to do further appraisal, but weary of the fact that they look unlikely to be able to monetize as things stand. Only the earliest players have built production capacity, and it is looking like the boom in many ways is slowing down as more and more companies are reaching development stage, but are cautious to start pouring money into expensive production facilities, which might then be left standing and gathering dust.

Also, the size of many companies which entered the KRG in the past years was quite small, so many of them are running out of money now, and would normally have sold off/farmed out their assets by now, but the number of buyers has been limited given the legal risk, hence prices have been low.

5. In the three agreements with the central government it only paid companies for their costs. What kind of payments do the companies get from the KRG?

They get a percentage share of the production, which is calculated after costs. Effectively it is a share of the profit.

6. Are the IOCs mostly relying upon the stock market to make money off of their investments in Kurdistan?

Most of them are in need to sell/farm-out their assets, as they are quite small. In the meantime they might be able to raise some more money on exchanges.

7. Have the companies been happy with this situation or have they been complaining about it?

Of course the companies have not been happy, but who can they complain to. The KRG is making its best to unlock the dispute, but Baghdad regards the IOCs as having entered into illegal agreements with a sub-state body, which did not have the authority to sign upstream contracts. IOCs can only hope that a final solution is compatible to KRG and their interests.

8. With major energy companies moving into Kurdistan is there going to be a period of consolidation with the smaller ones being bought out?

Yes, and in anticipation that this issue will have to be resolved soon, some large midsize and super major companies have already moved in, hoping to beat the rush. Should a resolution be reached which is good from the KRG perspective, asset valuations in the region should likely rocket.

9. KRG Natural Resource Minister Ashti Hawrami has continuously talked about the export potential of the region. At one time or another he’s said that the KRG could produce 250,000 barrels a day quite quickly, and eventually jump to 1-2 million barrels. When Kurdistan has been allowed to export however it’s only been able to pump about 150,000 barrels a day. Can it reach the figures that Hawrami has talked about in his timeframe or are they meant to push Baghdad or aimed at attracting more companies to the region?

In the short term, yes. DNO, which runs the Tawke field in Dohuk province, the Sinopec-led Taq Taq consortium, and some KRG production from the Khurmala dome, as well as the small test production from Gulf Keystone’s Shaikan in Dohuk should be able to lift exports to 250,000 bpd in a few months time. The larger number is very optimistic, but exploration results have been good, so they should be able to at least get relatively close to 1 million barrels per day within a decade.

Naturally one would expect a bit of “optimism” in such statements, given the need to attract investment, and also to point to the amount of resources which the Iraqi government are denying development for the moment. Also, potential reserve numbers are reported as a span, if you’re “selling investor space” you might mention the upper figure, which is what oil ministers and politicians often do. When reserves have been proven, they most often fall somewhere below the top number. That is not to say that KRG could not find all the crude for those exports, but let it be discovered and proved first, so to speak.

Baghdad-Irbil Dispute

10. All of the Kurds’ deals have been called illegal by Baghdad, because it claims sole management over the oil sector. Now that major IOCs are moving into the KRG, some have argued that this dispute is over with Kurdistan having won. What is your opinion of the situation between the two sides?

As I touched upon in earlier questions, I do not think any side has won yet. The entry of super majors has greatly strengthened the KRG’s hand, but as long as Baghdad controls the monetization (exports/marketing) the same basic deadlock persists.

The KRG’s hand is stronger in a pure oil industry perspective these days, but it holds much less sway in the Iraqi parliament than before the 2010 elections for instance, meaning it is less certain that the oil law issue, which should –or at least could - resolve the dispute will be possible to the region’s liking.

11. Baghdad has said it would place sanctions and blacklist any IOC that went to Kurdistan. Besides some minor penalties against Exxon, the Iraqi government hasn’t done much else. Do you think it’s going to take stronger action in the future or does it grudgingly accept it can’t do much against such big companies?

It is grudgingly accepting, it seems. Exxon is too large and important to punish as that would completely derail one of its largest key megaprojects in the south, which will be responsible for much of the oil production capacity growth in 2013/2014.

Smaller companies have however previously seen their interests hit. A South Korean IOC/refiner for instance lost a term contract for Basra Light crude of around 100,000 barrels per day a few years ago, after its small upstream arm participated in a South Korean consortium signing up to acreage in the KRG. For a refiner to loose such a base load on term can be rather damaging to margins as they had to find replacement crude quickly and that usually costs.

12. The KRG claims that Baghdad owes IOCs there around $1.5 billion for exports. Do you think the problems with the money were due to political decisions in Baghdad, the infamous bureaucracy or other something else?

I think such an issue boils down to political decision at the highest level, as the deal was negotiated at the highest levels. If Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Deputy Premier Hussein al-Shahristani wanted the deal to stand and run smoothly, they would have made sure the money was transferred from the Finance Ministry. Iraq has not suffered from a lack of cash in the government coffers, rather there has been too much. The bureaucracy comes in at another level, like having been too slow in putting it to use in reconstruction projects, etc. Unless a minister micromanages a process, it often slows down to a crawl.

13. Can you see the two sides coming to some kind of more permanent agreement upon exports or are they just going to continue with short-term, ad hoc arrangements?

As I have indicated above, I think it might still be hard for the sides to come together in a compromise. Both sides would be seen as letting down a very strong popular support base in their respective constituencies if departing substantially from the red lines both sides have kept so far. And those red lines remain firmly apart.

At some point, a permanent agreement will be made, but it might take a few years of working uninterrupted under an ad hoc arrangement for it to be acceptable, it is hard to say.

14. What are the chances that they will finally agree upon a new hydrocarbon law?

Right now, I would not rate the chances as particularly high, however if Turkey remains committed to a separate crude export pipe from the KRG to the Mediterranean, Baghdad might feel that it needs to make some decisive moves to compromise in order to retain some influence in the region’s oil sector, and indeed economy.

15. Oil production, exports and profits are taking off in southern Iraq as well. How does that affect the relationship between the central and regional governments over petroleum policy?

To some extent it has made it easier for Baghdad to play for time, as their oil income now is rising rapidly in any case, making the impact of the shut-in in the KRG look less of a problem.

The tightness of medium/sour crude in the Mediterranean in the past few months, compared with the plunging Iraqi production from the mature and mismanaged Kirkuk field however provided a bit of a wake-up call. As export volumes without KRG contributions fell from around 400,000 barrels per day to around 300,000 barrels per day Iraq could not fulfill its term contracts, and a queue build-up of tankers off Ceyhan, Turkey appeared, with waiting-times reaching 21-days in June/July 2012. This could only be alleviated by the KRG.

16. Do you think the Kurds independent oil policy is also backfiring by causing resentment amongst Arab parties in Baghdad making it harder for the two sides to come to any kind of agreement?

Very much so. The Kurdish autonomy aspirations have always been viewed with deep suspicions south of their border, as they are seen as a first step towards secession. Also, we need to remember that after decades of resource nationalist rhetoric from the government, and a very tainted history of IOC participation/exploitation before the nationalization drive, people in the rest of Iraq remain highly skeptical of IOCs, and quite supportive of the idea that the oil should be controlled entirely by the central government.

KRG And Turkey

17. The Kurds are working on a pipeline that’s supposed to be finished in two stages, with the first to be completed in 2013, and then the second in 2014. Much has been written about this project. Is this an independent pipeline directly from the KRG to Turkey or is it going to be an annex to the existing northern Kirkuk-Ceyhan line? If the latter will that mean it will still be under the control of the Oil Ministry?

It is still unclear exactly what kind of project it will be, and it is very early days. In my view, it is hard to see the first stage being completed before late 2014 by now, and the second before late 2015. It is my understanding that the pipeline will not cross Baghdad-controlled territory. In Turkey it might hook up to/run parallel with, the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline however, but there have been different information circling.

18. If the Kurds want their own independent pipeline, it would require the consent of Turkey. What has Ankara’s policy been on this matter?

Ankara’s recent support for such a project was a 180-degree turn, as a bilateral KRG-Turkey link would fundamentally empower the KRG economically and politically and really make them quite independent (word used cautiously here) of Baghdad.

This is complicated though, as the project would require a bilateral treaty between a sovereign state, Turkey, and a sub-state region (KRG) against the clear opposition to its legality by the KRG’s sovereign national authority. It is hard not to make it look like Turkey is meddling in another country’s affairs, and encouraging secession. It might be a very deep bone of contention, and it would be interesting to ask an expert in international law if it would be possible for Iraq to challenge it, but also if it would make any difference if Iraq did, as international law only exists if states “sign up to it”.

I have the impression Ankara has stepped back on this issue slightly, while it takes stock of the Kurdish issue and pan-Kurdish sentiment, in the light of what has happened in Syria. There is a fear that pan-Kurdish nationalism could again rise in the KRG. Barzani’s efforts to calm the Syrian Kurdish situation, and take control of the Kurdish regions there through his Syrian-Kurdish allies should be seen in this light, as he wants to mute the strong anti-Turkish sentiment and the movement wanting to liberate all Kurdish areas, in order to salvage the Turkey relationship which the KRG has become so dependent upon.

19. Why has Turkey allowed Kurdistan to truck oil in return for Turkish fuel recently?

This has gone on for years, but outside of government “control” in Turkey. As part of the rapprochement, Turkish companies were eager to start importing KRG crude. Also, Turkey has been backing out Iranian crude volumes due to the international sanctions on Iran, so they have looked to all other possible suppliers, even if the volumes which the Kurds can truck only is a fraction of what Iran previously supplied; it still supplies Turkey, although much less, as Turkey received a waiver.

20. Another factor is the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). They have been carrying out a concerted campaign to attack the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline nearly every month. Would the KRG still face that threat if it had its own pipeline to Turkey?

Probably. Hard to know of course, but that link would be a confirmation of the close deal between the KRG leadership, particularly the KDP, and Turkey. For ideological reasons, one would expect the PKK to be quite opposed to this, but then relationships between the different groups are complex.

Transparency And Corruption in Kurdistan

21. Corruption is an issue in all of Iraq, and there are stories that the two ruling Kurdish parties have inserted themselves into all kinds of business deals in the region. Have they been able to manipulate any of the oil deals or stocks in the companies for their own personal profit?

As you mention, there are plenty of stories and over the years questions have been raised about commission fees, etc. This has even been an issue in the political debate in the KRG, which, despite the regional democracy’s shortcomings, serves as a credit of its openness. This is especially so compared to its neighbors, save Turkey.

22. The KRG’s Natural Resource Ministry has claimed that its contracts are transparent. Is this true, because there has been some dispute over whether Kurdistan has fully published its contracts, and Baghdad has claimed that the KRG has refused to share a lot of information about its oil deals?

Ultimately it is a question of perception, but I would however say that the KRG oil regime is one of the most open by far in the Middle East/North Africa region. It is perhaps an ironic positive outcome of the dispute, but Iraq and the KRG are now leading in at least making their respective upstream oil contracts official. When it comes to marketing there is always the deal sensitivity which means total transparency is hard, until sometimes with a significant time lag. This is the situation for Iraq proper too.

23. Oil smuggling has been an endeavor that the KRG has partaken in for decades. This issue recently escalated when Minister Hawrami said the Kurds had the right to export independently any time they want. Why have they continued to do this even when it had export agreements with Baghdad?

Baghdad has during much of the time not paid the region any money for the crude it has exported, which probably is as good a driver as any for smuggling.

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