New Iraqi oil minister seeks billions in investments

May 23, 2006 - 0:0
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq's new oil minister said on Monday he would seek clear laws designed to attract billions of dollars in foreign investment and vowed to promote a culture of transparency in the country's shattered oil industry.

In remarks that could put him on a collision course with other political leaders, Hussain al-Shahristani said oil deals with foreign firms struck by regional authorities, such as one reached in the Kurdish north last week, should require backing from the central government.

"The first thing we are going to work on is an investment law to reassure the big oil companies so that they work in Iraq," he told Reuters in his first interview.

Shahristani, a nuclear scientist who lacks oil industry experience, said he was prepared to make tough decisions to tackle a host of problems, including rebel attacks on oil pipelines and corruption that has robbed Iraqis of billions of dollars of oil revenues.

"We should have specific laws which put the oil ministry in Baghdad in charge of all operations starting from exploration, fields development, production, exports and signing contracts," he said two days after the announcement of Iraq's first full-term government since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Oil multinationals eyeing Iraq's giant largely undeveloped oilfields, are waiting until a new investment code with a legal and regulatory framework is in place, before they venture in.

Shahristani said the oil ministry would be technically ready to present the law to parliament in three months but political backing was needed.

"There are some articles in the constitution which could be explained in many ways. We need to get national agreement, especially from those in charge of the oil in the regions and provinces. We will not put it before parliament before getting political approval," he said.

No more secrecy

Shahristani, who spent 11 years in prison under Saddam, said oil sales from state marketing company SOMO would be transparent and secret negotiations would not be tolerated following years of back-room deals.

"Starting from the day before yesterday, everything related to oil in Iraq will be announced transparently and publicly and there will be no secret talks and contracts."

The law must be ratified by a parliamentary committee.

Small Norwegian firm DNO moved in early and in November when it became the first foreign company to drill for oil in postwar Iraq through an agreement negotiated with Iraqi Kurdistan, a de facto autonomous region run by Kurdish leaders.

Two small firms - one Canadian and the other Turkish, began drilling three wells last week in a field in the Kurdish north with a reserve capacity of 1.2 billion barrels, officials said.

Hoshiar Nouri, head of Taq Taq oil field, said he expected the Turkish firm Genel Enerji and Canadian company Addax Petroleum to finish drilling by the end of 2006.

Kurdish officials said the Kurdish authority has agreed with the two firms to invest in the field for the next 25 years. They said the two firms together will get 15 percent of the profit while 85 percent will go to the Kurdish authority.

Shahristani said the oil revenues of any agreement should go to the central government for distribution to regions and provinces based on population.

"According to the constitution the oil and gas are the property of all Iraqi people, the revenues will be put in the state coffer," said the Shi'ite Islamist known for his no-nonsense aproach.

"The main concern for regions is to get its share and not to run the oilfields or sign any contracts," he added.

Iraq's oil sector, hurt by decades of war and sanctions, has been lurching from one crisis to another since the U.S. invasion of 2003.

Daunting challenges

Shahristani acknowledged that he will face daunting challenges but vowed to lure foreign companies with aggressive marketing and production plans that do not envisage small regional contracts.

"Iraq has the potential to be the second biggest producer in the next few years. This requires marketing ties with all the importing countries."

Shahristani predicted Iraq, which sits on the world's third largest proven reserves, would re-establish its weight at OPEC's bargaining tables.

"Iraq will make a strong return to OPEC and will get its rightful place and will start exporting the amounts designed for it."

Iraq produces around 2 million barrels per day (bpd) of crude oil and hopes to lift this to pre-war level of 3 million bpd by the end of the year.