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Analysis: Iraq oil production claim stuns experts
WASHINGTON --  Iraq's oil minister stunned experts this week when he said production had reached 2.86 million barrels per day - higher than pre-war levels and above what was known as Iraq's capacity of about 2.5 million barrels per day.

Oil minister Hussein Al Shahristani said production in the south - home of Iraq's largest known reserves - and the north, which has been hit with violence, have improved, the Middle East North Africa Financial Network reported Wednesday, citing the Arabic Al Sabah newspaper.

This announcement may be overreaching optimism, or merely political posturing and while some analysts say production has increased in Iraq, they are more skeptical of Shahristani's numbers.

There is no way to get a 100-percent accurate reading on Iraq's oil meters - since none are in place, analysts say. Most rely on Iraqi oil exports as a hard-number buoy, then add in various upstream conditions to gauge production totals.

The US Energy Department's data arm, the Energy Information Administration (EIA), estimates exports averaged 1.6 million barrels a day for September, and domestic consumption somewhere between 500,000 and 600,000 barrels a day.

EIA production for September was estimated at 2 million, the same as capacity.

Among the factors hindering an accurate measure of oil production is smuggling and stealing, reinjecting into the ground crude stripped of easy-to-process liquids (usually because of a lack of transportation or refinement capacity), and oil lost from attacks on oil infrastructure.

PFC Energy said it appears production has increased from the 1.9 million barrels per day estimated for last month to about 2.35 million to 2.4 million barrels per day now, but "certainly not" 2.86 million, PFC's Saad Rahim said.

He said the ministry has posted these numbers with no back-up.
"They haven't said how they've reached these levels," Rahim said.

Iraqi infighting in the south, where much of Iraq's estimated 115 billion barrels of reserves are located, has spared the oil infrastructure, since it's viewed as an income source for the eventual winner of the clash, said Greg Priddy, an analyst with the Eurasia Group, a business political risk consulting firm.

The pipeline from Kirkuk - a city atop an estimated 11 billion barrels of oil and growing in both political importance and violence - to a port in Ceyhan, Turkey, however, has seen no such respite.

The state-run Northern Oil Co. said this week oil flow resumed in the pipeline after months offline, though only 250,000 to 350,000 barrels a day run through it. The Bayji refinery, Iraq's largest, on the Kirkuk-Ceyhan stretch, can't get enough electricity to keep it running.

The EIA estimates Iraq refining capacity at nearly 600,000 barrels a day. "However, it is unable to produce much of the kind of product that it needs, so it imports refined products from its neighbors," the EIA said. "Imports varied recently from 20 percent of kerosene requirements to 50 percent of gasoline."

The EIA said, however, the closest Iraq came to Shahristani's recent outlook - in fact, since the run-up to Operation Desert Storm in the early 1990s - was 2.47 million barrels per day for a week between August and September.

Priddy said he estimated exports at around 1.7 million barrels per day, so there's "absolutely no way" Iraq is producing 2.86 million.

His colleague at Eurasia Group, Peter Khalil, who also served as director of National Security Policy for the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad, said Shahristani needs to qualify his estimate.

"He likes shooting from the hip about figures, doesn't he?" said Khalil about past announcements proven way overstated. "If it's accurate, that's very good news for Iraqis, of course."

Khalil said any increase in production would look good to foreign investors, investment which Shahristani is seeking during planned trips to Australia, Japan and China.

Dathar Al Khashab, general manager of state-run Midland Refineries Co./Daura Refinery, also called for financiers at a recent American Petroleum Institute conference in San Antonio. "Please help," he said. "Please be brave enough to go to Iraq. Don't just sit there and wait on the opportunity."

Khalil said, "They need that money to get in there" in order to repair an oil infrastructure badly damaged by wars, sanctions and lack of attention during Saddam Hussein's regime.

More than security, oil companies are waiting for the Iraqi government to finalize a federal oil law, which would define regulatory conditions for investment, he said.

To do that Iraq will need to settle regional disputes between the Kurds in the north, Shiites in the south, and oil-poor Sunnis in the center over oil wealth distribution.

The process for constructing an oil law is being done in secret, but is required to be passed by parliament before the year's end to comply with International Monetary Fund obligations and Paris Club debt cancellation.

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