Judging by today’s report of TOTAL S.A. (EPA:FP) (NYSE:TOT) buying a stake in Kurdistan oil blocks, the steady trickle of companies signing up with the Kurds may soon become a flood.
According to Bloomberg, TOTAL S.A. (EPA:FP) (NYSE:TOT) has followed in the footsteps of Exxon Mobil Corporation (NYSE:XOM) and Chevron Corporation (NYSE:CVX), when it purchased a 35 percent stake in the Harir and Safen blocks from Marathon Oil Corporation (NYSE:MRO). It may be recalled that we earlier reported how Exxon had been followed into Iraqi oil exploration by Royal Dutch Shell plc (NYSE:RDS.A) (NYSE:RDS.B).
Iraq represents one of the last great repositories of crude oil reserves, and is attractive to oil majors the world over. Unfortunately the political differences between Baghdad, in the southern region, and the semi-autonomous Kurdistan in Northern Iraq have meant that oil companies must play a dangerous balancing game. On the one hand, they cannot risk alienating too much the Baghdad leadership, while on the other they are loath to ignore the rich oil bounties on offer in Kurdistan. Exxon Mobil Corporation (NYSE:XOM) and Chevron had to incur the wrath of the Baghdad Oil Ministry when they signed on the dotted line with the Kurdish region.
In fact last week Iraq last week blacklisted Chevron Corporation (NYSE:CVX) for its deal with Kurdistan, effectively shutting it out of any future oil agreements with the central Iraqi government. “In line with Oil Ministry policy based on the constitution, the Oil Ministry announces the disqualification of Chevron company and bars it from signing any deals with the federal Oil Ministry and its companies,” the Oil Ministry said in a statement, and cited by Reuters.
Though no financial details were made available, the two blocks that are the subject of the Total transaction are 705 square kilometers and 424 square kilometers respectively. According to Total, it will operate the Safen block.
It may be noted that increasingly better economic relations between Kurdistan and neighbouring Turkey make the area even more attractive to the oil companies. We earlier reported that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Turkey announced plans to build a pipeline connecting Ceyhan, Turkey, with northern Iraq and that this pipeline could carry one million barrels of oil per day, and could be completed as early as August 2013. A second addition to the pipeline would connect it directly to the existing Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline by 2014. In fact, the KRG plans to export crude oil to Turkey, which will be refined in Turkey and re-exported to Northern Iraq.
Further, according to intelligence analyst Michael Bagley, “From our standpoint, Northern Iraq stands to be one of the next great investment areas in the Middle East, and so far, the KRG has managed to out-play Baghdad in the natural resources and investment game.”
Given these factors, the decisions by oil companies to enter Kurdistan are quite understandable.