BAGHDAD, May 17 (UPI) -- Iraq is preparing to have its fourth auction of oil and natural gas exploration zones as part of its drive to rival Saudi Arabia as the world's leading oil producer.
Despite myriad problems, the prospect for Iraq achieving these goals has been enhanced by the fact that most Middle Eastern oil states -- even the mighty Saudis -- are producing at capacity.
"Iraq is the only country in the region that has the resources to meet the demand for oil in the coming years virtually by itself," observed analyst Bernhard Zand.
Iraq's oil reserves are officially pegged at 143.1 billion barrels, the fourth largest reserves in the world after Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Canada.
But the architect of Iraq's ambitious energy development and expansion strategy, Hussain al-Shahristani, the former oil minister and now deputy prime minister in charge of energy affairs, says the country has potential reserves of another 214 billion barrels in untapped fields.
It also has natural gas reserves estimated at 100 trillion cubic feet, along with roughly 150 tcf in probable reserves.
Writing in the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, Zand said: "Global demand for oil will increase by at least 10 percent over the next 20 years.
"Most of this demand will most likely be met by sources in the Middle East and North Africa.
"Most countries in the region, however, are already producing oil at the limit of their capacities. Some are in the midst of revolts and revolutions while others may face violent upheaval in the future."
In February, the International Energy Agency in Paris slashed its forecast global oil demand growth for 2012 due to the effects of lower-than-expected economic growth in Europe and elsewhere.
The IEA, which acts as the industrialized nations' energy watchdog, said global oil consumption would increase in 2012 by 800,000 barrels per day, down from the 1.1 million bpd forecast the previous month. That was the agency's sixth consecutive reduction.
Be that as it may, Iraq, engaged in a $50 billion program of upgrading and expanding its aging infrastructure, particularly its export facilities, is pushing ahead with its plans to transform its energy industry, even as that of its main rival, Iran, is being weakened by international sanctions.
In April, Iraq's Oil Ministry unveiled the 12 exploration zones that will be auctioned off May 30-31.
All are in remote areas, part of the ministry's strategy of expanding Iraq's production base, but making them riskier investments since they are harder to protect from insurgent attacks.
At least 47 international companies have been pre-qualified to drill in the zones, which are expected to add 29 trillion tcf of gas and 10 billion barrels of oil to Iraqi reserves.
The zones up for grabs are mainly in western and central Iraq and companies that win the licenses will have to commit to spending up to $90 million-$300 million each, depending on the block.
These moves come as Iraq's oil strategists come to terms with the fact that the initial targets that Shahristani set for upgrading the oil industry and quadrupling production over the next few years were overly ambitious.
Global industry analysts have long argued that Shahristani's aim of boosting production to 10 million-12 million bpd by 2017 was unreachable given the state of Iraq's infrastructure after decades of neglect, war and economic sanctions during Saddam Hussein's era.
Most suggested that a ceiling of 5 million-6 million bpd -- around double the current production level of some 2.5 million bpd, the highest since 1979 -- was more realistic.
In April, Shahristani acknowledged that and said Baghdad plans to "slightly lower" the target of 12 million bpd so that increased production could be extended over a greater period of time.
He set the new target to be set by the end of the year would be "significantly higher" than the figure of 8.5 million bpd mooted in 2011.
"Iraqi output is constrained by its internal distribution infrastructure and the country's export capacity," observed Oxford Analytica.
"While the government's most ambitious targets suggest 12 million-13 million bpd by 2020 is theoretically possible, an output plateau of around 6 million-7 million appears more likely."
Even that would give Iraq immense clout within the Organization of Petroleum exporting Countries, and at today's prices would earn Baghdad some $1 billion a day to fund national reconstruction.