The world’s biggest oilfield contractors are building bases in the deserts of Iraq in a bet they’ll profit as the country strives to boost crude oil output to rival Saudi Arabia.
Schlumberger Ltd., Halliburton Co. and Baker Hughes Inc. are among companies this past week that said they’re expanding operations in Iraq. Weatherford International Ltd., the fourth-largest oilfield-services provider by market value, will expand staff in Iraq to more than 1,000 by July, Chief Executive Officer Bernard Duroc-Danner told investors yesterday on a conference call.
The prize is a share of the billions of dollars to be spent as the war-torn country seeks within seven years to increase crude-oil production capacity to 12 million barrels a day, on a par with the world’s largest oil exporter, Saudi Arabia. Iraq’s current production is about 2.4 million.
“It’s all becoming more real, in that contract awards are getting closer,” said Jeff Tillery, an analyst at investment bank Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co. in Houston. “It’s a big opportunity for these guys.” Revenue potential is high, he said. “The profit side is a little bit of a leap of faith.”
The risks are financial, legal and political. Contractors don’t yet have a firm grip on what costs might be, Duroc-Danner said. Last month’s parliamentary elections left no political party with enough seats to govern alone, and Iraq doesn’t have a law yet for how oil revenue will be distributed.
Iraq’s government has signed 10 contracts for oilfield development with London-based BP Plc, Exxon Mobil Corp. and other producers.
BP, which is leading development of Iraq’s biggest oil field, known as Rumaila, awarded $500 million in service contracts last month. Included were projects won by Geneva-based Weatherford and a partnership between Schlumberger, based in Houston and Paris, and state-owned Iraqi Drilling Co.
Rumaila may become the second-biggest oil field by production in the world, BP said earlier this year. Saudi Arabia’s Ghawar field is the largest.
Halliburton, which plans to invest $100 million in Iraq this year, said it’s in the process of securing its first major base in Iraq.
‘Plenty of Work’
“There’s going to be plenty of work in Iraq, and believe me, all the service companies will have opportunities there,” David Lesar, chief executive officer at Houston-based Halliburton, said on an April 19 conference call with investors. “So we’re going along at the pace we want, and we’re confident we’re going to be successful.”
Schlumberger’s base will have 300 people this year, and that number will double by early 2011, CEO Andrew Gould said last month.
“Competition will be fierce, start-up costs high, and we do not expect significant revenue before 2011,” Gould said at the Howard Weil Energy Conference in New Orleans. “The significance of Iraq will only really emerge once the post- election political landscape is understood and some form of oil law has been passed.”
Development of Iraq’s oil industry is moving ahead as security improves after decades of wars and sanctions.
U.S. and Iraqi forces said yesterday that they killed two of al-Qaeda’s regional chiefs in raids. A day earlier, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Iraqi and U.S. forces killed the terror network’s two principal leaders in the country.
“Iraq is probably the biggest opportunity, along with possibly Brazil, confronting the oil-services industry,” said James D. Crandell, an analyst at Barclays Capital in New York. “It’s a country that has a significantly higher capability of exporting crude oil, but it needs a lot of work done on its fields.”
Within five years, service providers may be competing for more than $5 billion annually in contracts, he said.
The four biggest oilfield contractors all rose 4 percent or more yesterday on the New York Stock Exchange. Schlumberger gained 17 cents to $68.02 today, and Halliburton fell 2 cents to $33.29. Baker Hughes climbed 60 cents to $50.89, and Weatherford dropped 59 cents to $16.62.
If anything, service companies are late in positioning themselves for the “upcoming surge” in oil contracts, said Nansen Saleri, CEO at Quantum Reservoir Impact in Houston and former reservoir-management chief at Saudi Arabia’s state oil company.
“Iraq is pregnant for huge growth,” Saleri said yesterday.
The country has potential reserves of 200 billion to 300 billion barrels of oil, Saleri said, and “the early movers will be the big winners.”
“It presents a tremendous opportunity for the service companies,” Gene Shiels, a spokesman for Houston-based Baker Hughes, said yesterday.
All of the companies said investors shouldn’t be quick to judge results from their Iraq forays.
“It’s going to be a very expensive place to operate, at least initially, because you’ve got all your mobilization costs, you’ve got people you’ve hired, bases that you’ve built,” Shiels said. “It’s going to take some time.”