A first: An oil expo planned in Baghdad

and Sinan Salaheddin

BAGHDAD — Iraq launched an unprecedented public campaign Friday to attract investment from international oil companies, rolling out a red carpet — literally — for executives from as far away as Russia and Japan.

At the expo — the first of its kind since the fall of Saddam Hussein more than five years ago — the oil minister pronounced his country now safe for business. He said it desperately needs help in rebuilding its devastated oil infrastructure, developing oil fields and refineries and looking for new sources of untapped crude.

"Tens of billions of dollars are needed for investment in the oil sector in the coming 10 years," Hussain al-Shahristani told reporters at the opening of the three-day energy conference in an unfinished convention center in the tightly secured area surrounding the Baghdad International Airport.

In return, al-Shahristani promised "full cooperation and a transparent and competitive environment for fair business."

Despite the violence and the hassles that continue to plague Iraq, the foreigners seemed interested.

Nikolay Seregin, project director for Gazprom Neft, a Russian company at the conference, said the world financial crisis and plummeting oil prices make Iraq particularly attractive because of the low cost of doing business here.

"At this time, when all oil companies are experiencing difficulties, Iraqi projects may be more interesting," he said.

A drop in oil prices to under $50 per barrel from a summertime high of $150 has also hit Iraq hard. The crisis forced the government to slash next year's spending plan from $80 billion to $67 billion. Iraq, an OPEC country, is heavily dependent on oil revenues for more than 90 percent of its budget.

The Iraqis recently opened a first round of bidding for contracts to develop six major oil fields and two gas fields, choosing 34 of 120 oil companies that applied to participate.

Those chosen included Royal Dutch Shell PLC, BP PLC, ExxonMobil Corp., Chevron Corp. and Total. None of those major companies was among the dozens of groups manning booths at the Baghdad conference. But the expo did attract ConocoPhillips, the third-largest U.S. oil company along with several Russian and Japanese companies.

Several private security companies also advertised their services at booths, a reminder of the continued dangers of doing business in Iraq.

"We understand that the security in Iraq is improving," said Yasushi Kono, executive vice president for Nippon Oil Exploration Ltd., a Japanese company chosen for the bidding process.

"So we think it is high time for the Japanese enterprises to come to Iraq and help Iraq people to reconstruct the energy industry in Iraq," he added. "Opportunities are abundant."

Other companies, including Lukoil and Gazprom Neft of Russia and Indonesia's Pertamina, are looking to renew ties they enjoyed under Saddam's regime.

China recently signed a $3 billion deal to develop the Ahdab oil field south of Baghdad, restoring a Saddam-era contract that was canceled after the invasion.

Iraq sits on the world's third-largest proven oil reserves with more than 115 billion barrels.

But decades of wars, U.N. sanctions and aging infrastructure have depleted the oil infrastructure, while insurgent attacks and sabotage have undermined rebuilding efforts since the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

"These factors have combined to keep our petroleum sector in prison in a 1970 time capsule, isolated from the many advances in technology that the industry has made," al-Shahristani said.

But he touted the remarkable security gains that have led to a sharp decline in violence over the past year following a U.S. troop buildup.

"Now the government is looking to the sector as a critical engine for future growth and economic development," he said.

He also said much of Iraq's vast oil wealth has yet to be tapped, with only 15 of 78 known oil and gas fields developed and brought into production.

Many desert areas in western and southern Iraq also have yet to be explored, raising the potential of undiscovered resources.

Al-Shahristani said no field exploration work has been conducted in Iraq since 1990, when the U.N. imposed punishing sanctions following Saddam's invasion of Kuwait, which led to the 1991 Gulf War.

Iraq hopes to raise the current daily production of 2.4 million barrels per day to 6 million barrels per day in 2018, al-Shahristani said. He also cited the need to increase transportation, storage and refining capacity as production increases.

The inability of Iraq's fractured ethnic and sectarian groups to agree on national oil legislation for the equitable distribution of oil revenues has been another major frustration for companies looking to invest.

Most of Iraq's known oil wealth is concentrated in the northern semiautonomous Kurdish region and the mainly Shiite south.

The Kurds have unilaterally signed more than 20 production-sharing contracts with a handful of international oil companies — a move that has drawn warnings from the central government that the contracts are illegal.

The conference itself underscored the problems still facing the country. It originally was to be held in October but was pushed back to December because the conference center wasn't ready. Some delegates also complained of long waits at checkpoints getting into the area, one of the most heavily secured in Baghdad.

"Questions of security and instability in the country are very important," Seregin said.

Hussain al-Uzri, the chairman of the government-owned Trade Bank of Iraq, acknowledged continued challenges but said "the presence here of major oil companies is a very good sign that Iraq is now on the radar screen of international investors."


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