* Exxon tells Washington it seeks buyer for West Qurna-1
* Move comes nearly a year after Kurdish deal
* Baghdad keen for Russian, Chinese replacement
* Clinton not worried Russia would dominate Iraqi oil
By Peg Mackey and Timothy Gardner
LONDON/WASHINGTON, Oct 18 Exxon Mobil
wants to leave its giant oilfield project in southern Iraq,
diplomatic sources said, in a move likely to aggravate the
country's internal tensions and hamper Baghdad's ambitious
energy expansion plans.
The desire of the world's largest publicly traded oil
company to quit was due to prospects of slim profits from the
estimated $50 billion West Qurna-1 project, the sources said. An
exit from the project would contrast with a deal Exxon signed a
year ago to explore in Iraq's autonomous northern Kurdish
region, where incentives are better.
Baghdad deemed the Kurdish deal illegal and promised to
punish Exxon by ripping up its contract for West Qurna-1, which
has reserves of 8.7 billion barrels.
Executives at the company this week told U.S. State
Department officials it was looking to sell its 60 percent stake
in the project, diplomats from two Western countries said.
"Exxon is telling Baghdad: 'We are letting you know we're
looking to leave,'" one of the diplomats said. "They are
shopping around and looking at all the options."
The company declined to comment, as did the U.S. State
The departure of Exxon from southern Iraq now hinges on its
ability to find a company willing to buy out its stake in West
Qurna-1, industry sources say.
"If they can find the right buyer, they will pull out," said
an industry executive. "It's an unusual move for Exxon. They
usually don't give up."
Industry sources said Baghdad is keen to replace Exxon with
companies from Russia, or even China, to teach Western oil
majors a lesson. This could alter the diplomatic and political
influences in Iraq but, technologically, Chinese and Russian
companies may have less to offer the oil sector.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did not comment on
Exxon during a speech on energy diplomacy at Georgetown
University on Thursday.
But in response to a question about whether Russian
companies might dominate in Iraq if the Exxon leaves the
project, she was not worried. Russian, American, French and
Chinese companies all will be competing in Iraq and will be
operating within the economic marketplace the global market
place sets, she said.
Clinton praised Iraq's progress in boosting oil output by
900,000 barrels per day since 2010 to 3.2 million bpd today as a
"major Iraqi success story helped by the (U.S) Departments of
State and Energy".
The State Department added an energy diplomacy office last
year which has helped Iraqis identify infrastructure
bottlenecks, improve investment plans, and get oil to market,
Exxon, a global oil company based in Texas, was the first to
flex its muscles and challenge Baghdad's authority by signing up
for exploration deals with the Kurdistan Regional Government
(KRG). Others, such as Chevron, Total and
Russia's Gazprom Neft followed just months ago.
Exxon stock barely budged on the news, indicating there may
be more at stake for Iraq, Kurdistan and regional politics than
for Exxon shareholders.
The dispute over oil contracts is part of a broader battle
between Baghdad and Kurdistan over oil rights, territory and
regional autonomy that is straining Iraq's uneasy federal union.
Iraq's Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has gone so far
as to ask U.S. President Barack Obama to force Exxon to pull out
of West Qurna, saying its actions are a threat to peace.
While Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Hussain al-Shahristani met
Exxon executives in Baghdad this summer and threatened to kick
the company out, practical and legal constraints limit Baghdad's
scope for action.
West Qurna-1 now pumps about 400,000 barrels per day of
Iraq's overall production of just over 3 million bpd.
Shahristani declined to say on Thursday whether Exxon was
pulling out but told Reuters in an email that Baghdad was
sticking to its line that all contracts signed with the KRG
without the approval of the central government were illegal.
"All companies that entered in such contracts were asked to
cancel them or pull out," he said. "Exxon Mobil can be contacted
about their decision."
RISING PROFILE IN KURDISTAN
Despite Baghdad's tough talk, Exxon Chief Executive Officer
Rex Tillerson said in March the company was committed to
expanding output at West Qurna, where it is in charge, as well
as exploring in Kurdistan.
And it has been business-as-usual for Exxon at West Qurna-1,
which generates a hefty chunk of Iraq's central government
Exxon, with minority partner Royal Dutch Shell,
signed up in early 2010 for the project, which targets output of
2.825 million barrels per day by 2017. By the end of last year,
the pair had spent just under $1 billion.
West Qurna-1 is central to Baghdad's plan to more than
triple output in the next decade and to rival Saudi Arabia, the
world's top oil producer. Iraq now ranks second behind Riyadh in
the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries.
But the pace of expansion has been slow. Exxon, like other
foreign operators, has complained that infrastructure
bottlenecks, payment delays and red tape are hampering progress.
Tough terms and slim margins on Iraq's service fee contracts are
It was that frustration, say oil executives, that led Exxon
to move into Kurdistan, which offers more lucrative production
sharing contracts and a safer operating environment.
Exxon is now raising its profile in Kurdistan, with drilling
set to begin in a few months. A senior Exxon delegation was last
week in the region's capital Arbil, where the company is setting
up an office, they said.