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Iraq opens 4th energy bidding round since '03 war

BAGHDAD--Iraq opened on Wednesday its fourth postwar bidding round for oil and natural gas exploration, with 39 foreign energy companies registered to compete for exploration rights in a dozen areas of the country.

The government is seeking foreign investment to build up an energy sector hit by years of neglect and violence. Iraq holds the world's fourth-largest oil reserves and oil revenues make up nearly 95 percent of the country's budget.

In an opening speech, Iraqi Oil Minister Abdul-Karim Elaibi said exploration of the areas up for bidding will increase Iraq's oil reserves and help the country enter the natural gas industry. He promised that his ministry will “spare no efforts to help and support the companies as partners to achieve the common interests.”

Still, conditions for bidders are less attractive than in the three previous rounds held since the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

Only areas with undetermined hydrocarbon resources are on offer, while previously the rights to known big and medium oil and gas fields were being auctioned off. Operating costs for energy companies could be high because most of the 12 exploration blocks are in remote and unsafe areas and lack infrastructure.

The government also added a clause for the first time that prevents companies from signing deals with regional authorities without the approval of the central government in Baghdad. Companies that violate the clause will have their contracts terminated, said Sabah al-Saidi, the deputy head of the Oil Ministry's Licensing and Petroleum Contracts department.

The new clause came in response to Exxon Mobil's bold move last year to sign six deals with Iraq's northern self-ruled Kurdish region without Baghdad's approval. In return, Baghdad banned the Texas-based company from taking part in the current bidding, but kept a deal to develop the 8.6-billion-barrel West Qurna Phase One oil field in the south.

Wednesday's auction started with no one bidding for an 8,000-square-kilometer (3,100-square-mile) block in northwestern Iraq with presumed natural gas fields.

Still, the current bidding round poses an opportunity for energy companies because the exploration blocks are in “fertile and easy-to-extract areas,” said Kuwait-based independent analyst Kamel al-Harami.

The Iraqi Oil Ministry approved 47 international energy companies to participate in two days of bidding on Wednesday and Thursday, but only 39 companies paid the participation fee.

Top among the approved companies are the Anglo-Dutch Royal Dutch Shell, UK's BP, Chevron and Occidental of the U.S., China's CNOOC and CNPC, Japan's Japex, Russia's Lukoil and others.

The blocks are expected to add about 29 trillion cubic feet of natural gas to the current 126.7 trillion cubic feet in reserves, and about 10 billion barrels of oil to the current proven 143.1 billion barrels of proven reserves.

Since 2008, Iraq has awarded 15 oil and gas deals to international energy companies, the first major investments in the country's energy industry in more than three decades.

The goal was to boost daily production from about 3 million barrels now to 12 million barrels by 2017. But Iraq is mulling whether the target should be revised downward to fewer than 10 million barrels, considering a possible drop in demand on oil in the international market and infrastructure bottlenecks.

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