A perspective on the Iranian upstream oil & gas industry
The size of the Iran’s hydrocarbon reserves presents indisputable significant potential, boasting the world’s largest proven gas deposits and fourth-largest proven oil reserves. Ambitious targets have been set across the upstream sector for the next four years, with plans to nearly double oil production volumes and increase those of gas by circa 50 percent. If Iran can agree on a strategic direction and deliver on its own targets, the only question that remains is how long it will be until Iran becomes the world’s largest gas exporter.
The global oil & gas market has begun to rebalance in the first half of 2017, following a period of suppressed prices that has stalled the US shale revolution and prompted OPEC (The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) intervention, with an agreement to take 1.2 mmbbl/d off the market. Despite this rebalancing, it is likely that the market will remain uncertain in the short to medium term. In this context, and following two years of declining investment in exploration and production (E&P) with reserve replacement ratios falling dangerously low, many integrated energy companies and private investment funds are looking for the next big opportunity. The question is: could Iran be that compelling investment case?
The size of the Iran’s hydrocarbon reserves presents indisputable significant potential, boasting the world’s largest proven gas deposits and fourth-largest proven oil reserves. What’s more is that the current political leadership has displayed progressive reform and begun to rebuild relationships with the west, following decades of sanctions. A major milestone was reached in January 2016, when the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was implemented, removing nuclear-related sanctions. Since then, a number of bold steps have already been made to swiftly rejuvenate the country’s economy and draw much-needed investment back to its primary industry – oil and gas. Ambitious targets have been set across the upstream sector for the next four years, with plans to nearly double oil production volumes and increase those of gas by circa 50 percent. However, even to get close to these targets, companies must first find ways to address the financial, technical and capability gaps across the upstream industry.
A possible roadmap has been constructed around five key pillars: urgently attracting foreign investment, optimizing existing resources, establishing a capability-building mechanism, prioritizing a fit-for-purpose gas-monetizing strategy, and improving global perception and access to new markets, including expanding the customer base in order to reach desired export targets. If Iran can agree on a strategic direction and deliver on its own targets, the only question that remains is how long it will be until Iran becomes the world’s largest gas exporter.
- Global hydrocarbon outlook
While projecting the future oil price is tricky business, a good starting point is to look back to understand what has happened historically. In which year did the oil price hit a peak of $117/bbl, alongside the release of the Sony Walkman (available for $200), the invention of the first snowboard, the election of the first female prime minister in the UK, and the formation of Iran into an Islamic Republic following the return of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini? The answer is 1979. This year was significant; while it was the beginning of a revolution in Iran, it also marked the end of a period of high oil prices, which had unlocked huge supplies of oil and gas that were previously uneconomical. The market was flooded, over-supplied by as much as 14 mmbbl/d. OPEC tried its best to prop up prices, with Saudi Arabia alone taking 6mmbbl/d off the market in the early 1980s. However, the effect of this was to support non-OPEC members, which, at the time, were undertaking large capital investments, including the North Sea and Canada. In 1985 Saudi Arabia announced that it would no longer act as the swing producer, and what followed was a decade of low oil prices. (See Figure 1.) In the early 2000s, due to growth from China and other developing nations, the demand for oil exceeded the supply and the price of a barrel rose quickly. After a momentary blip duringthe financial crash of 2008, the spot price of a barrel recovered to over $110/bbl. Shortly after this, the US shale revolution took hold and grew with unprecedented speed and resilience. This drove up US domestic production volumes, which
more than tripled, from 3 mmbbl/d to 10 mmbbl/d. However, in 2014 global demand started to slow, the Eurozone appeared stagnant and Chinese growth forecasts were downgraded.
The high US volumes, coupled with a period of stability across the Middle East, saw the market balance tip and oil prices tumble from July onwards. By January 2015, the price had reached $47/bbl. What was then considered a low point would continue on a downward trajectory to a nadir of $29/bbl in January 2016. The difference this time was that the market had only been oversupplied by 1–2 mmbbl/d, so production disruption in one oil-producing country or a well-orchestrated production cut by OPEC would rebalance the market relatively quickly, especially if the demand side was to pick up more quickly than expected. The effect of the sustained low oil price through 2015 and into early 2016 saw many marginal producers
squeezed, with over 200 E&P companies in the US filing for chapter 11 bankruptcy. US production began to decline, and the global market slowly rebalanced. In November 2016 OPEC members agreed to cut production by 1.2 mmbbl/d. A number of non-OPEC members, including Russia, Mexico and Azerbaijan, among others agreed to cut a further 600 kbbl/d. Historically compliance has been difficult to control, but early signs are that all parties are committed to their quotas. With oil prices hovering around the mid-$50s, all eyes are on the US producers as rig count creeps up in the Permian Basin, where operators have healthier balance sheets, greater access to capital, and vastly improved drilling and completion efficiency. (See Figure 2.)
However, looking further ahead, with global peak demand not anticipated until sometime after 2040, a sustained drop in conventional discoveries and the year-on-year reduction of E&P over the last two years has led to the reserve replacement ratios of super majors dropping to below 100 percent for the first time. (See Figure 3.) It remains to be seen whether US shale producers respond quickly enough to fill the demand gap or there will there be a supply squeeze in the medium to long term. Turning now to the gas story, global gas prices rose in line with oil prices from 2000 to 2008, driven by increased demand from emerging economies and a shift away from coal for power generation. Following the financial shocks in 2008 a divergence in global hub prices emerged. In 2011, following the Fukushima disaster, Japan’s reliance on imported gas rocketed and the JCC hub price reached $16–18 MMBTU in 2012. Meanwhile, in the US, market fundamentals drove down the Henry Hub price with an abundance of cheap, accessible gas to supply the domestic market, leaving the price hovering between $2–4 MMBTU. (See Figure 4.)
Recently, a number of large LNG projects have come onstream in Australia and across the Pacific basin, providing an increased supply to Korea, Japan and other Asian markets. This has begun to displace Middle Eastern exports (mainly from Qatar) west into Europe. While the US begins to ramp up exports of its own, the market appears to be oversupplied until 2020. Going forwards, we are likely to see altered trade flows (see figure 5) and movements in regional pricing, with hub-price convergence already apparent. The impact on Iran is notable as it considers its position as a future supplier of gas across the Middle East and into Europe and Asia.
Iran’s oil & gas potential
Geopolitical context To understand the current situation in Iran it is helpful to reflect briefly on its history. In 1951 Iran voted to nationalize its oil industry, which, until then, had been dominated by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Following a coup in 1953 the Shah returned, and the two decades that followed are seen as a time of prosperous growth for the oil and gas sector. In 1954 oil income was $22.5 million, and by 1976 it was over $19 billion. Peak production of 6.6 mmbbl/d was reached in 1976, and two years later, in 1978, Iran became the second-largest OPEC producer and exporter of crude oil.
Following the revolution in 1979, NIOC took absolute control over the oil and gas sector and abolished all international agreements. With US-imposed sanctions, production was curtailed and exports suspended. To follow was a war with Iraq in 1980, which lasted until 1988, when a ceasefire agreement was signed. Throughout the period no oil agreements were signed with foreign companies, and production levels were suppressed.
It was only in the mid-1990s that the Iranian government began to strengthen the sector, investing $40 Bn between 1997 and 2005 in developing existing fields and exploring new ones. The projects were financed either directly by NIOC, through domestic contractors, or as joint ventures with foreign investment companies. In the case of joint-venture agreements, a buy-back scheme was put in place, in which NIOC reimbursed expenses but maintained complete ownership of the assets.
Major oil companies from France, Italy, the Netherlands, the UK, China and Russia had agreements with the ministry to develop the oil and gas sector during the early 2000s. However, under the leadership of Mr. Ahmadinejad5 , relationships with the west deteriorated, and in 2006 sanctions were imposed and later renewed in 2012, hampering growth in the sector further. (See Figure 6.)
Despite sanctions, Iran’s economy grew steadily from $110 Bn ($1,500 per capita) in 2000 to $592 Bn ($7,000 per capita) in 2011, although with a retraction of around 8 percent per year from 2011 until 2017, following the imposition of unilateral sanctions. Despite this, Iran still has the second-largest economy in the MENA region after Saudi Arabia, with an estimated GDP of $424 Bn in 2016. It also has the secondlargest population in the region, swiftly approaching 80 million people. Further, a slowdown in GDP has not fully translated into unemployment-level terms, with a continued fall from 13 percent in 2011 to 11 percent in 2016.
Impact of the JCPOA
In January 2016, following a review by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the JCPOA was implemented, releasing nuclear-related sanctions. Throughout 2016 Iran has been quick to reengage with foreign companies, offering improved contractual terms to attract them back to the negotiating table.
Following the JCPOA, signs of economic recovery have been strong, with growth forecasted at 5–6 percent for the next two years, based on the expectation that Iran will remain committed to the terms of the deal. However, the heavy dependence on oil and gas revenues means forecasts on economic activity and government proceeds remain volatile. The budget deficit grew by 4.3 percent to reach $14.3Bn in 2016, and Iran hopes that the anticipated new deals in the oil and gas sector will help rebalance the books in the coming years.
With regards to exports, the successive rounds of sanctions have previously closed doors to the western world, limiting both Iran’s available markets and its access to foreign funds. In 2016 Iran exported approximately $100bn in commodities, of which 80 percent was oil and gas related (including both feedstock and refined petroleum products), and the remaining 20 percent included chemical and petrochemical products, fruit and nuts, carpets, and cement and ore. Nearly all of it went east to Asia; its largest export partners are China (27 percent), India (12 percent), Turkey (11 percent), Japan (8 percent) and South Korea (6 percent). (See Figure 7.) Iran will now be looking to expand its export partners to higher-priced markets across Europe, as well as further afield, as relationships continue to thaw
Iran’s reliance on the oil & gas industry is evident and likely to continue, given the size of its proven reserves. Proven gas reserves stand at 34 trillion cubic meters, making it the largest known source of gas in the world.
The South pars field is the largest gas field in the world, and makes up 50 percent of Iran’s gas reserves. Shared with Qatar and only separated by a maritime border, the giant field was discovered in 1971 but only commenced production in Iran in 1989, after the war.
Interestingly, unlike oil production, which has been largely constrained and disrupted by political interruptions, gas production has continued to rise consistently (at around 10 percent a year) since the early 1980s (see Figure 8), driven by domestic demand and helped by government subsidies.
Focusing now on oil volumes, Iran also has one of the largest proven oil reserves in the world, with an estimate of 158 billion recoverable barrels. These reserves are spread across 140 hydrocarbon fields, many of which contain both oil and gas. Twothirds of these reserves are located onshore, with the remaining one-third in the Persian Gulf. These stated reserves are easily accessible and can be conventionally produced. At the current production rate, the country reserves can last more than 110 years.
Iran produced an average of 3 million bbl/d in 2016; more than 50 percent of this production comes from the four largest fields. (See Table 2.) However, the average age of those fields is 69 years, which highlights the need to invest in exploration to bring new fields online.
Infrastructure and reservoir condition
During the 1970s, when oil prices were relatively high, large volumes of gas were re-injected into oil reservoirs to increase production volumes, which subsequently went from 2 mmbbl/d to 6 mbbl/d. However, this led to rapid decline in some large reservoirs by the late 1970s. This was followed by a series of strikes by workers in the upstream sector, which led to deterioration of reservoir management, compounded further by the Iraq war in 1980.
The aggressive production of the 1970s and the neglect in the 1980s have caused reservoir-pressure problems and water encroachment in a number of oil fields. This makes it a top priority for the country to develop a clear reservoir management strategy and introduce technologies that can quickly improve reservoir performance.
As in many other industries, Iran has proven ingenious in its approach to developing and manufacturing equipment locally to assist production. Nonetheless, despite admirable resourcefulness, and perhaps as a result of inconsistent investment and a short-term view of production, there are low recovery rates. The underlying problems lie in aging platforms that need rigorous maintenance plans and well stocks that require urgent remedial action.
Following the JCPOA, Tehran has shown positive steps of putting a century of turbulent relations with the international oil industry behind it, and begun to focus on being commercial and competitive. In January 2016 new IPCs were issued as an alternative to the legacy buy-back contracts. The IPCs are similar to production-sharing deals, in which foreign companies win the rights to output and reserves, and risks are shared. The question remains whether these new contract terms are sufficiently attractive to reach the $200bn desired target stated by Mr. Zanganeh in June 2016.
These new IPCs enable foreign companies to set up joint ventures with NIOC or one of its subsidiaries, with duration terms of 20–30 years, replacing the previous period of six to 12 years. Moreover, remuneration is flexible instead of a fixed fee, and rates of return are negotiable on a sliding scale and proportionate to risks surrounding development. One significant change is that oil companies will now be able to book the value of reserves on their balance sheets, subject to strict conditions in line with Iranian law and its terms of reserve ownership. (Foreign companies cannot own Iranian reserves.) With the intent of moving the Iranian oil & gas industry in the right direction, bold policies continue to be adopted. Towards the end of 2016, ambitious targets were set to raise oil production volumes to 6 mmbbl/d and gas production to 1,055 mcm/d (385 bcm/y) by 2020. (See Figure 9.) If met, these targets would have dramatic implications for both the industry and the country’s wider economy. What remains to be seen is how and when they will be met, considering the existing gaps.
Iran’s oil & gas sector gaps
The Iranian government has demonstrated the motivation, aspiration and desire to balance its books and resurrect Iran as a global oil and gas superpower. In order to reach these ambitious targets, it will be necessary to address financial, technical and capability gaps across the country’s upstream industry.
The single most limiting factor to achieving targets in the sector is access to funds. As mentioned above, a target of $200bn was stated in 2016 to fund projects across all parts of the value chain. (See Figure 10.) In the upstream sector, this includes developing the giant gas fields further and exploring and appraising new fields, while also upgrading production facilities and introducing new technology. Some of the funds could go towards finishing Iran’s first LNG terminal at Tombak Port, though this would likely require a deal with an oil major with access to technology and expertise.
Historically banks and financial institutions have been very slow and hesitant to back large investments in Iran. Some level of institutional reform across the financial sector would help accelerate funding, as the current structure of the industry has made it challenging for the Iranian banking system and private capital to engage in the oil and gas business.
Assuming that some financing continues to trickle through, ramping up oil production volumes will be a priority. Over the past five to six years the average daily oil production volume has been around 3 mmbbl/d, and export volumes have been around 1 mmbbl/d. (See Figure 9.) Following the JCPOA these volumes increased swiftly, to as high as 3.9 mmbbl/d and 1.8 mmbbl/d, respectively, through the second half of 2016. However, this increase was exclusively due to existing production capacity, opening wells that had been shut in, and exporting volumes that had been held in terminals and tankers. So with that in mind, and looking more closely at the target, achieving 6 mmbbl/d by 2020 does appear ambitious.
Given that Iran does have an exceptionally low recovery factor of around 20 percent compared to the 35 percent global average and best-in-class performers, such as the UK at 46 percent, there is clearly substantial room for improvement. By introducing modern IOR/EOR technologies and adopting the latest methods of reservoir management and increased gas injection volumes, it has been suggested that the annual production volumes could be increased by 7% a year.
However, stripping out the inflated volumes of 2016 and applying the 7 percent annual production increases that are detailed for existing capacity increases, it becomes clear that there is still a gap of 1.2 mmbbl/d that would need to be filled through new fields and assets in order to achieve that 6 mmbbl/d target by 2020.
Looking now at the gas production volumes, there are already many large developments under way, including the South and North Pars and Kish, to name a few. Thus, it is perhaps quite feasible that Iran will achieve its gas production target of 385 bcm/y by 2020. Despite this, what will still be required is careful consideration for how that gas is utilized between supplying the growing domestic and industrial demand, addressing the power generation requirements, maintaining oil-reservoir pressures and meeting the stated export targets.
In 2016, Iran’s gross gas production volume was around 270 bcm. (See Figure 8.) Less than 10 bcm of this was exported, while around 80 percent was consumed domestically, primarily for residential and industrial use and power generation. The remainder was either flared, lost or re-injected. Domestic demand is contextualized by the fact that it is currently greater than the available supply, meaning that the country burns a lot of its oil just to keep the lights on.
If the target of 385 bcm/y is reached, it is hoped that 70 bcm/y will be exported. To do this, and as production volumes increase due to the aforementioned new developments being brought onstream, there will need to be a well-thought-through plan for gas utilization. As domestic and industrial use and power generation will be prioritized, the likely trade-off will be between the volume of gas that is reinjected into the oil reservoirs and the export volume.
An example of where process capabilities could be greatly improved is through waste management. As illustrated in Figure 12, a possible way the export target and the growing domestic demand could both be met is through increasing production efficiency and reducing losses in the current system, as well as reducing flaring of associated gas volumes. This could potentially offset the projected increases in domestic demand, freeing up the much-needed additional production volumes for reinjection and export.
A way forward for Iran
In order for Iran to reinstate itself as the fourth-largest oil and gas global player behind Saudi Arabia, Russia and the US, it must first establish a clear strategic vision. Iran has many advantages; not only does it pose the world’s largest proven reserves of gas, but it is also well located between the European and Asian markets and has access to a large pool of local talent and resources. What is required now is a well-detailed action plan built around five key pillars to support sustainable growth across the industry. These are:
1. Urgently attract foreign investment
2. Optimize existing resource management
3. Establish a mechanism for capability development
4. Prioritize the most effective gas monetization strategy
5. Improve global perception and customer base to realize export objectives
Urgently attract foreign
Investment Iran faces two main challenges here. Firstly, the relationship with the US and renewed sanctions will make some large companies wary. Secondly, there is a high level of competition from a range of other investment options for the scarce capital being deployed.
While the abundant investment opportunities are clear, Iran’s challenge is to convince foreign investors that the risks are not too high. This includes persuading them to look beyond the geopolitical tensions across the region, as well as reassuring them that progress on reform will not be short lived and the governance of the country will work hard to avoid the reimposition of sanctions.
Optimize existing resource management
Iran has been producing oil for more than 100 years; however, it is essential that it manages these resources optimally. In order to do that, it is first necessary to fully understand the current state of the assets in terms of production potential, technical specification and structural integrity. Second, the country must identify the production chokes and bottlenecks, which could include reservoir-, well-, plant-, export- or market-related constraints. Third, there should be prioritization of projects to address these bottlenecks, which could include the introduction of new reservoir management techniques, remedial well work (e.g. setting bridge plugs to reduce water cut), reviewing compressor uptime or increasing export-pipeline capacity.
Establish a mechanism for capability development
Perhaps the second-hardest challenge for Iran after raising the required capital will be attracting and retaining the required talent and skills to continue to grow and develop the sector. Many other countries have grappled with this challenge, adopting a number of well-known policies and procedures, both contractual and non-contractual, to address regional capability gaps. Contractual capability development models include setting terms for local training schemes and establishing formal mechanisms for knowledge sharing and transfer, as well as enforcing local procurement. Non-contractual capability development models tend to generate higher impact, as well as involve collaboration with education institutions and universities and include sponsorship, R&D funding and theoretical training. It could also include joint ventures with local manufacturers or even establishing apprentices. An example of best practice for capability development within the oil and gas sector can been seen in Malaysia, which has a dedicated institution known as the Malaysian Petroleum Resource Corporation (MPRC). This acts as an independent body to link government entities, international oil companies (IOCs), national oil companies (NOCs) and academic institutions together with one common goal of developing capabilities within the industry.
Critical in local capability development is the definition of a clear and centralized strategy on how companies should work with the government and one another to develop talent sustainably. Often, “local content” strategies fail because they become a clause in a contract that IOCs and independents see as a financial rather than strategic commitment.
Prioritize the most effective gas monetization strategy
Historically, the simplest way for Iran to monetize its gas reserves has been to use its gas as feedstock to petrochemical plants and sell the products that include methanol, ammonia, urea, etc. While the technology is well known and the processes simple, the margins are relatively low. As gas production volumes increase and the market constraints reduce, Iran can begin to look at other ways to monetize its gas. Three possible ways are: LNG, GTL and pipelines.
The LNG process involves treating the gas and then cryogenically cooling it to -160 degrees centigrade. The technology has developed extensively over the last decade, with many mega-projects due online in the coming years. (See Figure 5.) However, it is still very expensive and only available to a limited number of western companies. While Iran may be able to learn a lot from its neighbor, Qatar, the expected oversupply to the market may prove a barrier to developing a greenfield LNG industry.
The second possibility is a process known as gas to liquid (GTL). Unlike LNG, which involves a change in state through cooling, GTL is a chemical transformation process to a different product, which typically supplies the transport and petrochemical markets. While this is also a very expensive technology, it may be a lucrative route for Iran to pursue as it allows producers to hedge between the oil and gas market.
The third option is the very traditional and well-established concept of transporting gas via pipeline. This appears an extremely feasible option for Iran as all neighboring countries, bar Qatar, require gas. It is also possible to reach larger markets beyond these immediate neighboring countries. To do so, it will be necessary to look west to Europe and east to Asia.
Currently 90% of Iran’s limited gas exports are to Turkey. Perhaps the most obvious export expansion route is to extend the pipeline through Turkey and into Europe once Iran and Turkey have resolved their pricing dispute. This would provide access to the large European market. This proposed pipeline project is known as the “Persian (Also known as the Pars pipeline or Iran-Europe pipeline)” pipeline.
The other route to Europe is though Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and then across the Mediterranean, through a project known as the “Friendship (Also known as the Islamic pipeline by some western countries)” pipeline. A $6bn contract was due to be signed in 2011, which included supplying a potential refinery in Damascus. However, it is unclear if construction was ever started. The project is ambitious, with a delivery capacity of 110 mcm/day (40 bcm/yr), a length of 1,600 km and an investment cost of $10 bn. While it could benefit all parties, it is unconfirmed where the required funding would come from. This is not to mention the significant instability of the regions through which the pipeline would run.
These options could be an alternative to the Nabucco West pipeline project. This pipeline, supplied predominantly from Azerbaijan’s Shah Deniz15 field, was designed to provide alternative natural gas supplies to Europe. However, the Shah Deniz consortium has stated a preference to supply the Trans-Adriatic pipeline, and it remains to be seen whether Nabucco West will go ahead. The proposed Iranian pipelines to supply Europe could thus supplant Nabucco if completed in time.
The second major export route is through Pakistan. The “Peace” pipeline should run directly from the South Pars field to Multan in Pakistan. It has been discussed since 1995 and was due to be complete in 2014, but has been subject to lengthy construction delays, with talks that it will be scrapped altogether if agreement between Pakistan and Iran cannot be reached soon. The real benefit for Iran would be to extend this pipeline to Delhi and provide access to the large Indian market. However, there are both competition and geopolitical tensions complicating the pipeline’s progress. First, Russia is considering a $25 Bn infrastructure project to construct a pipeline from Siberia to India, though it is believed that the transportation costs could be considerably greater from Siberia than from South Pars. Second, India and Pakistan may need to resolve long-standing tensions before the pipeline can get approval. One possible other option for Iran is to supply India from a pipeline via Oman and bypass Pakistan altogether.
Improve global perception and extend the customer base
Perception is perhaps the final key to the success of this plan. To achieve its desired growth, Iran must be perceived as both an attractive place for foreign investment and a reliable exporter of cargo. To achieve that, Iran must develop an investor-targeted marketing program as well as a customer-targeted marketing program.
The investor-targeted plan must highlight transparency, quality and ease of doing business.
By targeting larger, integrated oil majors with which Iran has historically well-developed relationships, the intended knock-on effect would be to establish the viability of the Iranian market and thus attract smaller and mid-size players, expanding the scope of investment flowing into the country.
It will also be important for Iran to develop relationships with new customers in order to gain access to higher-value markets around the world and achieve higher market prices. To do this, it must diversify its customer portfolio so it is comprised of both neighboring (e.g., Turkey and Iraq), emerging (e.g., India and China) and mature countries across western Europe. This should help to secure the trade balance and limit the impact of regional demand fluctuations.
As global demand for gas is expected to rise for the next 20–30 years and shale producers are tightening competition, Iran has a golden opportunity to not only become a regional hub, but also establish its footprint as a world leader in the gas industry.
The question is whether Iran will be able to attract enough investment to develop greenfield projects while simultaneously rejuvenating brownfield sites and bringing recovery rates in line with regional players such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
Crucial to answering this question is whether Iran can do the following three things: set the correct terms in its IPCs to convince international investors of the potential opportunity, conduct internal reforms to better facilitate project approval and delivery, and attract and retain the required knowledge and skill for the sustainable operational development of the industry. If so, it is quite feasible that one day Iran could become the world’s largest exporter of gas.