Dubai — Iraq has proven it can maintain oil production and exports without US workers for a short period, but there are major risks to crude supply from OPEC's second-largest producer if the conflict escalates and more staff have to leave for an extended period.
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US oil workers, which number about 30 according to oil industry sources, have exited Iraq for safety reasons following the US killing of a top Iranian commander in Baghdad last week. While the oil ministry said production and exports haven't been affected, challenges remain for the longer term because of a need for Western expertise and financing for some of the more difficult projects.
Iraq's oil industry has had issues on several fronts, from sourcing water for maintaining reservoir pressure to the growing cost of integrating gas and power operations at fields, analysts said. The assassination of General Qassem Soleimani prompted Iran to strike US bases in Iraq on Wednesday and raised fears of more attacks in a country that produces about 4.5 million b/d, or just below 5% of the world's oil supply.
"US firms have a wide footprint across Iraq's oil and gas value chain: from gas processing deals to negotiations over mega-projects, such as the Exxon-CNPC Southern Iraq Integrated Project (SIIP), designed to build new water treatment facilities, oil storage and expand offshore facilities," said Ahmed Mehdi, research associate with Oxford Institute for Energy Studies.
"These mega-projects alongside Chevron's business development efforts -- where it is interested in gaining access to Majnoon [oil field] -- have now been called into doubt."
When US staff left Iraq temporarily in June due to security concerns, state-run Basrah Oil Co. took over the West Qurna field. The country had exports of 3.96 million b/d that month compared with 4 million b/d in May, and output was steady at about 4.6 million b/d, according to data compiled by S&P Global Platts and from the oil ministry. There are thousands of foreign workers in the energy sector in the country, dominated by China, sources told Platts.
Chevron is temporarily evacuating its expatriate staff and contractors in the Kurdish region in northern Iraq but said its local staff remain. BP and Shell, both of which have operations in the southern region of Basrah, declined to comment. ExxonMobil, which operates the West Qurna 1 field, is evacuating its remaining 17 expats still there, leaving the field with Iraqi staff only, sources said. The field has about 400,000 b/d of output. Houston-based Halliburton, which provides oil services from its office in Basrah, didn't reply to an email seeking comment.
Iraq's crude production is steady at 4.46 million b/d, exports are averaging 3.45 million b/d and both were not affected by recent events in Iraq, an oil ministry spokesman said Thursday. The number of American workers in the country is "limited," he said earlier this week.
ExxonMobil's West Qurna 1 project is one of three giant oil fields in Basrah being developed by foreign oil companies. BP's Rumaila field and Eni's Zubair project are the other two while Russia's Lukoil is developing the West Qurna 2 project.
Iraqi oil workers can in the short-term replace the US workers, many of whom held top managerial jobs, analysts said.
"In the short-term, there will be no impact on production and exports will be maintained but beyond that, it all depends on which fields we are talking about and whether tension in the region reaches a point where all IOCs have to evacuate," said Ruba Hosani, an Iraq consultant. "The biggest fields (Rumaila, West Qurna 1, Zubair) were in production before IOCs became the operators 10 years ago and thousands of Iraqi oil workers continued to be employed in those fields."
Chinese workers, who also work on fields including CNPC's equity stake in the giant southern field of Rumaila, could also become a target if the security situation deteriorates.
"The Chinese should not be specifically targeted unless there is a more general breakdown of security or attempt to drive out foreign oil companies," said Robin Mills, CEO of Qamar Energy. "One question might be the impact on BP /CNPC's Rumaila."
For now, Iraq may be safe. OPEC and 10 allies this month started a 1.7 million b/d production cut accord that runs through March. Iraq pumped 4.58 million b/d of crude in December, a nine-month low, according to the latest Platts survey of OPEC production. Its quota under the current deal is 4.46 million b/d.
"At the moment some oil production is shut in as part of the OPEC agreement so Iraq has flexibility to ramp-up various fields to offset any declines," said Ian Thom, research director, Middle East Upstream at Wood Mackenzie. "This does buy them some time."
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