Iraq's future in oil

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LISA MULLINS: Iraq's oil revenues dipped a little last month. That's according to a statement today by the country's oil ministry. Even with a dip, though, the Iraqi government makes about 4 billion dollars a month from oil exports. Those exports are a key for the government with few other sources of cash. Lately officials in Baghdad have been courting investors. It's an effort to help expand its export capabilities. Part of the strategy involves making the Iraqi oil industry more transparent. That was the focus of a special meeting in the Iraqi capital this week. Reporter Susannah George was there.

SUSANNAH GEORGE: The meeting, held in an auditorium at the oil ministry in Baghdad, opened with a reading from the Koran. Representatives from Exxon Mobil, Shell and the Chinese national oil company CNPC sat alongside Iraqi official and political figures. Then Iraqi oil minister Hussein Sharistani took the podium.


GEORGE: Sharistani touted the new transparency initiative, and proclaimed Iraq to be a major oil exporter with a climate ripe for investment. He pointed to the latest round of oil contract bidding as proof of his ministry's openness and commitment to foreign investment. In that round, Iraq awarded dozens of oil contracts to foreign companies like Shell and Russian oil company Lukoil. The oil company representatives who attended the meeting all echoed the minister's enthusiastic support for the transparency initiative and rosy outlook on the future of Iraq's oil sector. James Adams is Exxon Mobil's Vice President of Iraq operations.

JAMES ADAMS: We think this is an excellent initiative. This helps build a better climate and a more competitive climate. We're one of the first large companies to start making major investments here and frankly we intend to be here for a very long time.

GEORGE: In a country rife with corruption, the oil ministry is one of the more open ministries in the country. Granted the bar is quite low. Alaa Mohie el-deen is the secretary general for Iraq's extractive industries initiative. He says that the ministry began opening up its books on it own.

ALAA MOHIE EL-DEEN: For years now the ministry of oil published their revenues monthly on the newspaper and their website, so they're implementing transparency even before that.

GEORGE: The new push for openness adds another element. It requires transparency not just from the Iraqi government, but also from the oil companies that do business with it. And this can make some companies nervous. Ruba Husari is an oil analyst based in Baghdad.

RUBA HUSARI: The oil industry by nature is very secretive. I don't see why these should hesitate to open their books here unless there's something not correct in those books.

GEORGE: That's not just the case in Iraq. The transparency push in Iraq is part of a global initiative for openness in the oil and gas industry. Eddie Rich is Mideast Regional Director for that effort. He says most oil companies are supportive of more transparency because it creates a level playing field, but there are exceptions.

EDDIE RICH: It can be that some companies are a little bit suspicious about what's going on. It can be uncomfortable, it's meant to be uncomfortable, not just for companies, but for government. It takes them into a new way of working.

GEORGE: Transparency is just one concern among many for oil companies working in Iraq. Ben Lando, Bureau Chief of the Iraq oil report.

BEN LANDO: The main concern right now is the lack of government. Political instability can lead to insecurity, a government perhaps not able to contain that violence and also then that brings up the question the legality of any contracts that are going to be signed without a government in place.

GEORGE: Iraqi politicians have been negotiating for months over how to form a new government. Meanwhile, Iraq's oil infrastructure remains vulnerable to insurgent attacks, which sometimes slow down production. With money from the most recent contract awards already pouring in, the country's oil sector is in need of oversight and authority now more than ever. For The World, I'm Susannah George in Baghdad.