Friday, August 31, 2012

Breaking Down the "Oil War" Hypothesis

A friend recently used the term "War for Oil" when referring to the War in Iraq, and it got me to thinking: regardless of the intent (I will stay well away from that one as I have little to add and nobody wants their minds changed on the matter), did the US secure a significant, reliable source of oil by invading Iraq? Let's find out.

I first went to understand how Iraq's economy has changed since the fall of the Hussein regime. I knew that oil mining contracts went out in 2009, so this helped.

Browsing through Wikipedia brought me upon this great chart (don't worry, I checked the sources), which gives us an idea of whose companies are mining how much:

So the US and UK mine a fairly large amount of oil. Good, but there are a few things to note that change the equation:

1) The US and UK are being paid $2/bbl to mine the oil. While profitable, the oil mining companies bear most of the the costs of mining (including all operations costs) and are likely making somewhere between 1/10 and 1/20 the profit made at other offshore, well, and oilsands sites (this is speculation on my part based on some oil industry experience). So payback in petrodollars is fairly low.

2) The Iraqi government retains the right to sell much of the oil to whomever it wishes--the fact that the US is mining 16% of the oil does not mean that the US will import 1.5 MBpD.

On the other hand, the US is far and away Iraq's largest export partner, accounting for $11B of Iraqi exports in 2006 (according to US State Dept). 70% of the Iraqi economy is oil, so if we assume that oil dominates Iraqi exports, it means that the US is importing $11B in 2006, or 157MBbl at $70/BBL. Let's say that export rate has grown with Iraq, whose economy has about doubled since then. That's about 310MBbl per year or 0.85MBpD. How does this compare to the rest of the US oil economy?

As of 2009, the US imported 10 MBpD and produced 5 MBpD of crude. Assuming we're comparing apples to apples, Iraqi oil imports account for 5.6% of total US oil consumption.

So this looks like a decent amount, but not game-changing. And it's significant, but a few points about the oil market raise some ambiguity as to whether it has a significant impact on the US oil market.

Besides a few embargoes, the oil market is driven by bidding on open market (given different transport capabilities--some stuff is pipeline only, or rail only, some stuff goes out on barges and can go anywhere, which is the case with most Iraqi oil). Different importers (in our case, free-market refineries) will bid for crude oil and import it, turning it around on the gasoline or diesel market to suppliers that you pump your gas from. Iraq does not have any contractual, legal, etc agreement to guarantee the US any amount of oil or at any price (in particular, being part of OPEC means it has the bargaining power to do just about whatever it wants). At the end of the day, the post-war world increased Iraqi oil production significantly, which reduces oil costs for all importers, but the US has not secured a cheap or even necessarily reliable source of oil. The Iraqi government won't enter into any agreements that guarantee US refineries some portion of Iraqi exports--Iraq gains nothing by it. If the Iraqi embargo (from the Hussein era) had remained, the US would simply get its oil from elsewhere at a higher price. Compared to the $800B cost of the war, the cost-benefit doesn't make sense.

If the war in Iraq was designed to secure oil, it ultimately failed... or at least won't pay off monetarily. There's no doubt that world oil production has increased due to the fall of the Hussein regime and the end of the embargo, and this has lowered oil prices for the moment, but the costs of the war will likely far exceed the benefit from lower oil prices. At 15MBpD of consumption, if oil is worth $5/BBL less (which is more than generous given the size of the oil market), the US economy would save about $27B per year. Not including inflation, it would require about 30 years to pay back the cost of the war.

Hopefully, then, the war wasn't considered an oil investment. If it was, it was probably the worst investment the US ever made.
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