Has ExxonMobil -- the annoyingly prissy schoolboy who always obeys the teacher -- risked weakening one of its distinguishing pillars in order to break into a single oil patch? And if so, could that shake up the global oil market along with geopolitics?
We are referring to the news, indiscreetly disclosed by a Kurdistan official last week, that the northern Iraqi region has signed an oil exploration agreement with Exxon. The reason this is a problem is that Kurdistan has been in a long-standing turf war with the folks in Baghdad over how to divide the spoils from its hydrocarbon riches. Until it's settled, Baghdad has forbidden foreign oil companies with which it does business -- which include Exxon, Shell, Italy's Eni, France's Total, the China National Oil Corp., Russia's Lukoil and virtually every substantial name in the industry -- to sign any deals with the Kurds without its okay. In September, for example, the U.S. company Hess was barred from a new round of Iraqi leases explicitly because of deals it executed with the Kurds three months earlier.
The stakes are high not just for Exxon, but for Iraq, the U.S., and the international community: The commercial tensions arise a little over a month before the Dec. 31 deadline for U.S. troops to be out of Iraq, and a predictable rise of other, security-based challenges to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. In an analysis, Reuters' Patrick Markey writes that a hard line against Exxon by al-Maliki could backfire by encouraging other companies to pull up stakes in Iraq proper and take up drilling in Kurdistan, hence jeopardizing his aim of building up oil exports from the south; but if he isn't tough enough, he could lose authority with other restive Iraqi regions.
The U.S., too, has a stake in stability on the ground once it leaves, and in Iraq's oil exports rising from the 2.9 million barrels a day it currently ships. The U.S. also is eager for a north-south agreement since it could result in Kurdistan's natural gas flowing into Europe through the proposed Nabucco pipeline, with which the U.S. hopes to curb Russian market dominance of the continent. Already, Genel, an oil company linked to former BP CEO Tony Hayward, is planning a 400,000-barrel-a-day oil export pipeline from Kurdistan, to be finished in the second half of 2013. In a statement, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that the Obama administration had advised Exxon that "they run significant political and legal risks if they sign contracts" with Kurdistan.
Iraqi officials have already laid out one potential recourse: Exxon is the holder of two large contracts with Baghdad -- a 60 percent share of West Qurna, a field estimated to contain 8.7 billion barrels of oil; and a big water-injection project designed to significantly boost production from under-performing Iraqi fields. "Shell, or any other company, can replace Exxon Mobil in West Qurna 1" Abdul Mahdy al-Ameedi, head of the Iraq Oil Ministry's petroleum contracts and licensing directorate, told the Wall Street Journal's Hassan Hafidh.
ExxonMobil spokesmen told me they had no comment on Kurdistan. Yet the company recognized these risks. Among its calibrations had to be a perception of decisive advantage in getting now into Kurdistan. A component of that assessment was the potential upside of any deal in the north: Kurdistan offers conventional contract terms permitting companies their traditional gargantuan profit if drilling is fortuitous, while Baghdad doles out miserly services-contracts with relatively low, fixed earnings. The companies have swallowed these services contracts in hopes of conventional deals in the future -- precisely the ones already on offer in Kurdistan. But Exxon may have contemplated anew the odds of Iraq actually granting such attractive terms down the road, and decided that extraordinary action was merited to improve the chances of profiting whatever the outcome.
Moreover, Exxon may have thought it could either finesse or tough-out any blowback -- I am told that some oil experts are advising foreign companies in Iraq that they can navigate the risk with Baghdad, and also that just such deals with Kurdistan will help to promote north-south agreement. For the record, the Financial Times' Sylvia Pfeifer, who originally broke the story, reported yesterday that Exxon notified the Iraqis after the fact of the Kurdistan deal, quoting Hussain al-Sharistani, Iraq's deputy prime minister responsible for energy. If true, it suggests that Exxon was not attempting to hide the contract.
In a column at the Financial Times, Javier Blas notes that conventional wisdom has been upended since the U.S. government apparently had no fore-knowledge of Exxon's contract. Perhaps that is the case, but the other conventional wisdom under challenge is that of Exxon's fundamental reputation, on which it actually trades in every relationship it forms and contract it signs around the world.
Exxon's twin pillars are its industry-leading capacity for building immense, complex projects safely, on time and on budget; and its elevated, no-nonsense approach to these deals -- it may not offer the best terms, or have the best personality, its negotiators argue, but it abides by its word, and will actually deliver what it promises. As a corollary, it expects its country partners to abide by their commitments.
It is just these attitudes of superiority that tend to irritate Exxon rivals and the leaders with whom it deals, one reason being that usually the company actually is better than everyone else. Exxon's reputation for irreproachability has been as important as its engineering skill -- it has inoculated the company from some of the contract shenanigans that have upended projects and deals led by rivals such as BP and Shell in Russia and elsewhere.
Last week I wrote that Exxon's creed has seemed so embedded in its DNA that it was "too far-fetched" to believe that it had not obtained prior permission from Baghdad. Yet here we have Exxon accused of flagrantly violating Iraqi law and sovereignty. What seems certain is that the permission of some material individual in Baghdad was not obtained.
It seems to me that somehow the trouble will blow over -- if the allegations are true, Exxon will be punished in some meaningful way that allows everyone to continue going about their business. But that will not eradicate Exxon's risk. If leaders elsewhere -- Russia's Vladimir Putin, Qatar's Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, and so on -- believe that Exxon in fact does engage in some of the same low-brow, corner-cutting shenanigans as its competitors, the company's bargaining advantage may be significantly lessened. By extension, that of its rivals and interlocutors could be increased.
As for global oil and geopolitics, the trouble could extend the standoff between Baghdad and Kurdistan, and thus undermine Western aims of relieving Europe's gas dependence on Russia.
Steve LeVine is the author of The Oil and the Glory and a longtime foreign correspondent.