President Barack Obama’s Iran policy is complicating the calculations of all parties interested in the country’s vast energy reserves. But along with the resource-hungry Asian tigers, France’s largest oil company is keeping its options open.
Total has long wrestled with the United States’ policy toward Iran, which has obstructed the implementation of its 2004 deal to develop phase 11 of the 26-phase South Pars gas field. For Total, as for energy-hungry nations like China and India, South Pars is a massive prize with 13 trillion cubic meters of gas — around 8 percent of global reserves.
To date, US-led sanctions have slowed down Iran’s exploitation of the world’s second-largest reserves in both oil and natural gas. Measures aimed at US oil companies, enacted in 1996 by President Bill Clinton, have been followed by banking sanctions drawn up under president George W. Bush by Stuart Levey, an official retained by Obama as undersecretary at the Treasury.
New moves in Washington targeting companies linked to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) are likely to bar from the lucrative US market any company worldwide that does business with companies and individuals on a US hit list, known as Specifically Designated Nationals (SDN). With the IRGC playing a growing role in Iran’s economy, “new intelligence” promised by Levey’s department could extend the SDN well into the energy sector.
Phase 11 of South Pars is slated to produce 2 billion cubic meters per day of gas for a liquefaction plant, South Pars LNG, as well as 70,000 barrels a day of condensate. At present, despite total gas reserves of around 29.6 trillion cubic meters, Iran currently plays only a small role in the global export market, consuming nearly all current domestic production of around 116 billion cubic meters.
For Iran, the production of liquefied natural gas (LNG) is essential for efficient export as it avoids the construction costs and market inflexibility of pipelines. LNG requires a high level of expertise and experience, both of which Total possesses.
Along with Statoil Hydro of Norway, Royal Dutch Shell and Spain’s Repsol, Total long delayed decisions over its involvement in South Pars, partly due to haggling with Tehran over terms but mainly because of sanction fears.
Frustrated at the Western companies’ delay, Iran looked east, agreeing on investment deals of more than $90 billion with Chinese, Indian, Malaysian and Russian companies. Last June, Iran and the Chinese state-owned company China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC), signed a contract for the upstream task of extracting gas from phase 11, apparently replacing Total.
But these investors are relatively untested in LNG, and Iran has no liquefaction plant eight years after work first began on South Pars. Unsurprisingly perhaps, reports continued in the Iranian media throughout last year that Total was working to continue its involvement, although the French company denied it was in talks with Iran.
Then in December Christophe de Margerie, Total’s chief executive, admitted to The Wall Street Journal that the company was keeping its options open over South Pars through wider cooperation with CNPC.
His interview was published shortly after Seifollah Jashnsaz, head of the state-run National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC), told Iran’s Mehr news agency that NIOC had met Total in the second week of that month.
But it seems Total has found a way around the problem. It isn’t talking to NIOC about South Pars, but it is talking to the Chinese.
De Margerie said Total was discussing with CNPC a multibillion-dollar natural gas project in northern China, as well as deals in Iran and Venezuela’s lucrative Carabobo region. Total and CNPC, with Malaysia’s state-owned Petrona, also won the rights to the small Halfaya oil field in Iraq in December. De Margerie portrayed the cooperation as being between Total’s expertise and China’s sheer volume and market presence. And he confirmed that Total was talking to CNPC about cooperation over South Pars — presumably as CNPC benefits from Total’s expertise in liquefaction, the key challenge in the Iranian field.
Exactly what form this work could take without upsetting Washington is unclear. De Margerie insisted Total would still prefer a comprehensive deal including gas extraction, its transformation into LNG and the export of LNG — something that would be incompatible with US sanctions. But short of this, Total is surely signaling it wants to keep open its interest in Iran.
For Tehran, the stakes could barely be higher as it plans to spend $200 billion to double gas production by 2014. While Iran’s oil revenue is recovering along with the recovery of oil prices to around $80 a barrel from $40 in February 2009, developing gas reserves remains a necessity if the country is to meet an ambitious growth target of 8 percent. Improving growth from the current 2.2 percent projected for 2010 by the International Monetary Fund is an urgent necessity if the authorities are to provide employment for young people and ease political unrest. Total may still play an important role in realizing these goals.
Gareth Smyth is the former Tehran correspondent for The Financial Times