Big oil firms waiting to see what happens

Tony Hayward's move into the Kurdistan part of Iraq will lead to fresh speculation over the entry of oil majors.

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Tony Hayward's move into the Kurdistan part of Iraq will lead to renewed speculation over the entry of oil majors into the region.

Big international oil companies such as Shell, BP and ExxonMobil are already active in the south of Iraq, developing the giant oilfields of Rumaila and West Qurna.

But while the legal stand-off between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the central authorities over contracts with the majors is unresolved, companies with interests in Iraq proper will not dare venture north. The central government has made it clear it will exclude companies that sign agreements with the KRG from future licensing rounds. It recently barred the US corporation Hess from the fourth bidding round for 12 new exploration blocks after it entered a production-sharing agreement for the Kurdish Dinarta and Shakrok fields in July.

But Mr Hayward's Genel Energy does not cut a lonely figure in the north of Iraq. Of the more than 50 independent oil companies active in the country, more than two-thirds operate in the Kurdistan region.

A large proportion of these are small European and North American companies. DNO International, Gulf Keystone, Heritage and WesternZagros have already made sizeable oil and gas discoveries, while Hess, Aspect, Longford, Niko, ShaMaran, Sterling and Vast are exploring prospective fields. The largest independent oil companies exploring in Kurdistan include Marathon, Murphy and Talisman.

Dana Gas, KNOC, OMV, MOL, Sinopec and India's Reliance Industries are also prominent in the region, as are Turkish companies Petoil and Dogan.

In spite of the scarcity of payments, Genel is not alone in planning to increase production in the region.

Gulf Keystone announced last month it was investing US$200 million (Dh734.6m) raised on the London Stock Exchange to fund an exploration and appraisal programme at the Shaikan, Sheikh Adi and Ber Bahr blocks, which contain an estimated 12 billion barrels of oil.