Progress but no solution: the KRG-Baghdad oil deal
How long will the latest export deal last?
The Iraqi government has struck a tentative deal with its regional counterpart in Erbil that - if ratified and stuck to – will see a steady increase of Kurdish oil via central government pipeline in exchange for compensation for the Kurdish region’s foreign oil companies.
Under the verbally-agreed deal, announced on the Kurdish Regional Government’s website from the office of Deputy Prime Minister Rosh Nuri al-Shawish, the Kurdish region will initially supply 140,000 barrels of oil a day to the central export pipeline hub at Kirkuk, rising to 200,000 bpd from October, and 250,000 bpd from 2013, according to Iraq Oil Report.
Iraq’s Oil Minister Abdul-Karim Luaibi, and his regional counterpart Ashti Hawrami hammered out the deal with finance and trade ministers, according to AK News.
The deal is subject to the approval of the cabinets of the governments in both Baghdad and Erbil. According to Kurdistan alliance spokesman Moa'd al-Tayyeb, the deal will help pave the way for the passage of an oil law in Iraq.
Under the deal, Baghdad will shortly pay a trillion Iraqi Dinars – a little over $850 million – as a lump sum “advance” to the regional government (the KRG) for distribution to the region’s oil companies.
$850 million covers around half of the $1.5 billion unpaid costs incurred by oil firms in the region to date, according to a KRG estimate. Baghdad previously said it would pay $560 million, after firms in the region were audited, on the basis of a lower export commitment from the region.
It is unclear whether this “advance” is final settlement of the full $1.5 billion the KRG have previously claimed on behalf of oil companies. Several important details of the agreement - not least of which how the central government will audit payments - appear to have been farmed out to small committees, where progress in Iraqi politics often goes to die.
While the Kurdish delegation was negotiating in Baghdad, top politicians on both sides issued standard lines to pre-empt potential failure.
Shortly before the deal was announced, Baghdad’s Deputy Prime Minister for Energy Hussein Al Sharistani has been vocally maintaining his long-standing position that companies which choose to work in the Kurdish region after signing contracts in the south will be expelled.
Sharistani also reportedly had a rough meeting with ExxonMobil executives a week before the deal was struck. "It was a really tense meeting. Shahristani was tough with Exxon's officials and warned them angrily they could lose the West Qurna contract if they started work in Kurdistan," an industry source told Reuters. "The atmosphere heated up when Exxon said they would consider legal action."
KRG Prime Minister Nerchervan Barzani issued a similarly trenchant statement that oil companies in the Kurdish region must be paid.
Further payments to the KRG will be contingent on a satisfactory audit of Kurdish oil receipts and expenditures by Baghdad.
Companies will only be repaid for the accrued capital expenses they have incurred, and will still not receive the ‘profit oil’ they are eligible to derive from oil sales under the terms of the contracts they signed with the KRG. Receipt of these amounts is unlikely to be recovered without overdue oil and gas framework legislation in place.
Companies have been selling oil locally to cover their operating expenses, which may become unsustainable as the demands on investment increase with the production levels from the region’s fields. Recent financial results from Genel Energy confirm that the company is currently operating on a break-even basis.
Shares in the Kurdish region’s oil firms leapt on the news late Thursday, with Genel, Gulf Keystone Petroleum and DNO International closing up 4.2%, 5.2% and 11.7% respectively.
The lack of oil legislation in Iraq, part of the unfinished business left the Coalition Provisional Authority in 2005, has retarded the development of Iraq’s oil sector, and it is hoped that passage of a bill broadly in line with one proposed in 2007 will reinvigorate flagging investor enthusiasm for south Iraq’s oil sector while putting the issue of Kurdish oil contracts to rest.
Genel and DNO will be the largest contributors to the region’s new production commitments. Exports from the KRG currently come from the Taq Taq block, operated by Genel, Tawke, operated by DNO, and Khurmala, operated by local firm KAR Group.
The companies agreed to take part in a “goodwill initiative” developed by Hawrami to resume oil exports via the central government’s pipeline after a freeze in April in protest at Baghdad’s refusal to make continued payments for the dues of oil companies operating in the Kurdish region.
Under the terms of the 2012 federal budget, from which it receives 17% of the total subject to central government expenses, the KRG agreed to pump 175,000 bpd.
The goodwill initiative saw companies pump between 100,000 bpd and 120,000 bpd “to build confidence with the federal government with the purpose of squaring up all the oil and gas issues in Iraq,” according to an official statement by Hawrami.
While not addressed in Thursday’s KRG statement, the deal probably protects the Kurdish region’s share of the Iraqi federal budget.
Senior Iraqi politicians recently threatened to cut the KRG’s budget allocation by over $3 billion – around 30% - if the Kurdish region did not resume oil exports, an amount the central government claims is the equivalent of losses to Iraq’s treasury by the KRG's halting of oil exports between April and August.
The region’s slice of the federal budget provides the KRG with around 95% of its own budget, with the KRG heavily dependent on central oil revenue to pay salaries in the public sector, the principal source of employment for Iraqi Kurds.
Agreement was reached around the time of a visit from US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, who according to a report issued by the office of the Kurdish Presidency “commended President Barzani’s efforts to settle differences between the KRG and Baghdad.”
Burns has repeatedly visited the Kurdish region to press the US Administration’s policy of promoting reconciliation between Baghdad and Erbil.
Burns’s latest visit follows correspondence between Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, who asked the US to intervene in the conduct of American oil companies – and ExxonMobil in particular - in the Kurdish region, and US President Barack Obama.
US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, Ambassador Elizabeth Jones visited President Barzani on 6 September and also urged reconciliation between Erbil and Baghdad. Jones was followed the next day by US Senators John McCain, Joe Lieberman, and Lindsey Graham, who met with Ashti Hawrami.
"During the most recent political standoff, the United States remained the indispensable honest broker and the only one trusted by, and in regular communication with, all of the leading blocs," Antony Blinken, the national security adviser to the vice president, told USA Today during Barzani’s visit to the White House in May. "Much of this engagement takes place quietly, unadvertised. But just because you don't see it and we don't say it, doesn't mean it's not happening."
While the move marks progress in relations between Erbil and Baghdad after several months of increasingly noxious rhetoric and the shut-in of Kurdish crude, it is a temporary and partial resolution of the long-running differences between the central and regional government’s over the legality and structure of oil contracts awarded by the Kurdish government, and is the product of brinkmanship more than a signal of a lasting resolution to the schism over oil.
As recently as 11 September Baghdad estimated the government’s losses from the Kurdish region’s failure to pump crude at federally mandated rates at $8.5 billion since 2010, a number which has not been publically tackled as part of Thursday’s tentative agreement.
The al-Hashemi affair and the Syrian conflict have further complicated Turkey’s relations with both Baghdad and Erbil.
Any compromise that leans to a more normalised oil sector in the Kurdish region of Iraq is welcome.
However, Baghdad has pledged to pay the KRG under a similar deal before, only to renege. Those hoping the deal means the Gordian knot of Baghdad-Erbil oil policy will be cut may be disappointed.