After at least US$2 trillion spent by Washington and arguably more than a million dead Iraqis, it has come to this: a pipe dream definitely buried this past weekend in Baghdad with round two of bids to exploit a number of vast and immensely profitable oil fields.
The bids, supervised by the Oil Ministry, were presented on a live TV game show. Instead of American Idol, Iraqis got "Oil Idol". In a raucous carpet bazaar atmosphere, the ministry played "my way or the highway" and forced 44 foreign Big Oil corporations to cut to the max the fee they collect on every barrel extracted in Iraq and submit to 20-year contracts. These multinationals were not given a share in Iraqi oil production; they will be paid a $2 fee per barrel for raising output above a mutually agreed level.
Still, for Big Oil, the possibility of having a crack at all those mega-giant fields in Shi'ite-controlled southeast Iraq - the largest concentration of its kind in the world - led all players to yell , "It's raining oil!" Once you've paid the ticket, you're inside the theater. And what a theatre ... The Iraqi government may end up paying foreign Big Oil as much as $50 billion for its know-how. All these "service" deals will dodge Iraq's parliament - which might throw a wrench in the works. And Big Oil will still get $2 for each barrel of extra crude above a minimum production target.
In June, Iraq held its first oil auction, offering foreign companies the chance to increase production at already-pumping fields. The latest auction was the first time foreign firms could bid on untapped fields. Of the 10 groups of fields available, seven were awarded.
Win-win for Russia and China
Cheney's and Rumsfeld's script was never supposed to develop like this. Instead of US Big Oil getting the lion's share, strategic competitors Russia and China turned out to be big winners. Dick Cheney's "consolation prize" was an Exxon-Mobil-Shell alliance getting the phase 1 of West Qurna in early November. Exxon-Mobil had been the favorite to also win Rumaila (17.8 billion barrels of reserves). But a BP-CNPC (China National Petroleum Corporation) alliance got it in the end because unlike Exxon-Mobil they agreed to cut their fee per barrel down to the Oil Ministry-enforced $2.
CNPC (50%), along with partners Total from France (25%) and Petronas from Malaysia (25%), was also a big winner for Halfaya (4.1 billion barrels of reserves, projected output of 535,000 barrels per day (bpd)), southeast of Amara.
Petronas again (with 60%), and the Japan Petroleum Exploration Company (Japex), with 40%, will invest a cool $7 billion to develop Gharaf (reserves of around 860 million barrels, projected output of 230,000 bpd). Bidding was fierce. Losers were a joint Turkish-Indian bid, a Kazakh/South Korean/Italian consortium, and Pertamina from Indonesia.
A Petronas-Shell alliance got the highly coveted Majnoon (reserves of more than 12 billion barrels, projected output of 1.8 million bpd), near the Iranian border. Russia's Lukoil (85%), with junior partner Statoil (15%), got phase 2 of the immense West Qurna (located 65 kilometers northwest of Basra; about 12 billion barrels of reserves; projected production of 1.8 million bpd) - which in theory it had already bagged under Saddam Hussein. When Lukoil was stripped of its contract by Saddam, it blamed US-instigated United Nations sanctions, while Saddam blamed Lukoil itself.
West Qurna's phase 1 (8.7 billion barrels of reserves, with a projection to increase output from 300,000 bpd to 2.3 million bpd before 2016) was won in November by the aforementioned Exxon Mobil-Shell alliance. Losers were Total from France, a consortium of Petronas, Pertamina and Petrovietnam, and a BP-CNPC alliance.
Gazprom (40%), with junior partners TPAO, Kogas and Petronas, got Badra (projected production of 170,000 bpd). Unlike the mad scramble for the southern fields, no one even bid for the East Baghdad field, for obvious reasons: it's located in a virtual war zone. 
The Shi'ites are coming!
Iraq nationalized its oil industry in 1972. Now Big Oil is back with a vengeance. Iraqi Oil Minister Hussain al-Shahristani made no bones about Iraq's ambitions, saying, "Our principal objective is to increase our oil production from 2.4 million barrels per day to more than four million in the next five years." Iraq is at present exporting less oil than under Saddam, but it aims to export seven million barrels a day by 2016. Shahristani also insists "our country will have total control over production".
That is enormously debatable.
For the moment, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government in Baghdad is obviously a winner. Iraq currently gets only $60 billion a year in oil revenues. It's not enough to rebuild a country destroyed by the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, UN sanctions and the American occupation. Arguably, Iraq's oil industry would not have sufficient funds, equipment and technical people to get back on its feet alone.
Whether with more oil revenues Baghdad will be able to impose law and order - starting with the capital - and fully equip its 275,000 military plus police forces, that's an open question. No one knows for sure who will be in control of Iraq in the near future, with parliamentary elections due early next year. A new government may be tempted to renegotiate these contracts, or even invalidate them.
In the next few years, with Iraq being able to reach the target of producing at least four million barrels a day, it's fair to argue this won't substantially influence the price of oil; but it will prevent it from shooting up out of proportion. China is now importing over four million bpd - and this will continue to rise. China by itself will be gobbling up any output increase in the global oil market.
What the early 2010s will definitely see is the rise of a relatively wealthy, Shi'ite-controlled Iraq friendly with Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah. Essentially, Shi'ite Islam on the rise. The US-friendly autocracies and dictatorships in the Gulf will cry again, "It's the return of the Shi'ite crescent!" United States think-tanks may be tempted to define Maliki as the new Saddam. The only difference is that by then, Cheney and company will be safely ensconced in the dustbin of history.
1. To see which companies got what in detail, go here
That development came only two days after the British company BP and China's CNPC (China National Petroleum Corporation) signed terms for the development of the huge Rumaila oil field, at 17.8 billion barrels (Bbbl) over twice the size of West Qurna 1, which holds at least 7 Bbbl of recoverable oil, and only three days after Italy's Eni signed to develop the 4.1-Bbbl Zubair oil field along with Korea Gas and Occidental Petroleum.
It looked, then, that there was a slight tipping in favor of US and British companies, historically over the last century the ones with the greatest influence on the pace of development of Iraq's hydrocarbon energy resources. (See The Rise of Rimland?, Asia Times Online, November 13, 2009).
The results of the latest round of bidding, in which 10 more fields were offered, show a different pattern. Out of over 40 companies constellated in various consortia, only seven firms present at the auction were American and only one actually entered a bid.
For West Qurna Stage 2, out of four consortia submitting bids, the winners were Russia's Lukoil and Norway's Statoil, which will split shares respectively of 63.75% and 11.25% after an Iraqi state partner comes on board as intended with a 25% share. Soviet state companies had planned to develop West Qurna in the late 1980s and Lukoil inherited the agreement, only to have it nullified, along with all of Saddam Hussein's other contracts, after his fall.
While West Qurna 1 went to ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell, West Qurna 2 is the larger resource, with estimated reserves of over 12 Bbbl. Lukoil had lost West Qurna 1 in a consortium with ConocoPhillips; a third independent bidder was CNPC.
That's not all. The largest field on offer in the round just concluded, Majnoon, with 12.8 Bbbl estimated reserves, went to a consortium bringing together Shell with Malaysia's Petronas. Outbidding a consortium formed by CNPC with France's Total, they will share respectively 45% and 30%, with the other 25% going to an Iraqi state company. Halfaya, the third-largest field on offer with 4.1 Bbbl, went to a consortium also formed by CNPC (one-half share) with Total and Petronas (one-quarter each) also participating.
There is no comprehensive legal framework for foreign direct investment in energy resource development in Iraq, partly due to the failure to hold a referendum (provided for in Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution and overdue by more than two years) on the status of Kurdish regions within four Iraqi governates, specifically to decide whether they become part of the Iraqi Kurdistan region.
As the northern city of Kirkuk and the region around it are included in this process, energy resources and the division of revenues between the federal regions and the political center in Baghdad is an issue. Due to the failure of Iraq's government to get parliament to approve such a law governing oil and gas development, the legal framework for the ventures assigned in the auction just concluded is set up in the form of service contracts.
Nevertheless, the present developments bode well for political stability in Iraq if the security situation remains also stabilized as a precondition for that. The more revenue that there is to divide among the center and regions, the easier it will be to divide this revenue; and the easier it is to divide increasing revenue, the easier it will be to resolve acute political issues. Still, the fields recently auctioned are mainly in the south of the country, rather than in the Kurdish region.
An interesting exception is the Qaiyarah and Najmah fields, adjacent to one another in the northern province of Nineveh, where the Angolan company Sonangol won with a revised bid. This would be a good sign for cooperation between the Kurdish region and the political center in Baghdad for future energy exploration and development in Iraqi Kurdistan, and for an eventual political settlement of thorny issues, including reversal of Saddam's Arabization policy in the north, which altered the ethnic balance there and hence also contemporary electoral rolls.
Running down the list of fields for the sake of completeness, Gharaf with 900 million barrels (Mbbl) went to a Petronas-Japex (Japan Petroleum Exploration Co) consortium and Badrah (100 Mbbl) to Russia's Gazprom. Other fields (East Baghdad, the four "Eastern Fields", and the three Middle Furat cluster) received no bids in part due to the fluid security situation in the country.
A third of a century ago, the legendary Seven Sisters of the global oil industry would have had these fields to themselves, but since then there has been an enormous diffusion of expertise and know-how to other companies. These have the technology necessary for less complicated developments, are able form partnerships for access to more complex technology when necessary, and are able to compete on a cost basis.
So despite the earlier award of West Qurna 1, it is turning into an energy bonanza in Iraq for almost everyone except the Americans, whose erstwhile vice president, Dick Cheney, is widely reported to have been one of the driving forces of the military intervention following energy task-force meetings with US energy companies where maps of Iraqi oil deposits were closely examined.
The country's proven natural gas deposits are meanwhile estimated at slightly over 100 billion cubic meters (bcm), with probable reserves up to nearly three times that figure. At the end of September, Turkey signed an agreement to take 8 bcm per year from deposits in Iraqi Kurdistan to help kickstart the Nabucco pipeline long under negotiation to channel gas from the Caspian Sea region to Europe. This story is far from over.