Analysis: Beneath Iraqi soil, an oil boom awaits

Oil seeps from the ground above the Tawke oil field in Iraqi Kurdistan. (BEN LANDO/Iraq Oil Report)
Published June 24, 2011

In 2004, the U.S. Army placed me in charge of evaluating the entire Iraqi infrastructure system, from oil and natural gas to electricity. Part of my job was to estimate the country's resource wealth and figure out how to help Iraq rebuild its energy sector. I concluded that Iraq ranks right up at the top of hydrocarbon-rich countries worldwide, and has the potential to overtake any country in production.

Out of approximately 87 major fields discovered to date, fewer than 30 are producing. The others never really produced at all, yet some of these are classified as super-giant fields with over 12 billion barrels of proven reserves each. When I arrived in the country, several Iraqi engineers informed me that they had only ever produced enough oil to meet their OPEC quota of 3.5 million barrels per day (bpd). They could do that out of just a few fields.

How high is Iraq's production potential? I began my assignment by looking at the data sets that were already available.

Of Iraq's many fields, the first one I worked on was East Baghdad, since I was living just west of there. The field was producing 1,100 bpd, and that was it. Yet as I started looking at all the data, I saw that the field was an anticlinal structure 110 kilometers long and 20 kilometers wide, with 10 pays, Cretaceous through Miocene. There were 16 billion barrels sitting under my feet. The field could produce 1 million bpd, but the existing infrastructure could only accommodate 25,000 bpd.

As I examined data from other fields, I found a similar pattern of under-developed capacity. One day in 2004 I asked an Iraqi engineer why there were so few Permian and Jurassic tests in the south – the same reservoirs that are so productive in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. The engineer replied, "So much production is already coming out of the Cretaceous, why drill deeper? The deeper oil reserves will still be there in the future."

From a rock hound's point of view, the geology is exciting. There’s glacial in the west, deltas and salt in the south, and all the way to plate tectonics in the north. Everything in geology you’ve ever learned in school, you can use across Iraq.

Not only is there huge potential for Permian and Jurassic production in southern Iraq, but Jurassic, Triassic and Permian exploration in the north should also yield big finds. The Paleozoic, Silurian and Ordovician will be productive in the west. In the last two years, there have also been several recent major discoveries in Kurdistan, where the geology is a little more complex, with plate movement and some complex faulting. There are over 400 2-D structures in Iraq – based on seismic data accumulated by majors and the Iraqi government in the late 1950s through '70s – that have not been drilled yet.

Out of the 2,500 wells drilled in Iraq, all of which are vertical, there are less than 60 holes drilled into the Jurassic or deeper. Most wells are less than 10,000 feet deep. There have been few stratigraphic tests in the south. One day, huge reserves will be found along the western margins of the Gotnia basin in southern and central Iraq, since oil migrates from east to west across the southern region.

I ultimately concluded that Iraq held far greater oil and gas reserves than had been previously estimated. For years, Iraq claimed oil reserves of 115 billion barrels and gas reserves of 100 trillion cubic feet. I asked Iraqi engineers and Oil Ministry officials what these figures were based on. They replied that these had been the official reserves for years, but no one knew where the numbers came from. Since then, Iraq has revised its reserve estimate upward, to 143 billion barrels. There is good reason to believe there's even more.

Given the data I had at the time, I calculated that Iraq's 84 fields held 230 billion barrels of proven reserves. I also evaluated the country's natural gas reserves, especially Akkas field in Anbar province, and calculated almost 200-plus trillion cubic feet of reserves. (Most of Iraq's gas production is currently being flared off.) Since then, a couple of new fields have been discovered in the Kurdish region, representing an additional 4 to 7 billion barrels of oil reserves and 9 trillion cubic feet of gas.

Balance of article . . . .

Harry T. “Bud” Holzman, Jr. deployed to Iraq as the U.S. Army's Chief Analyst for Iraq Oil and Gas Infrastructure in 2004. A geologist by training, he worked with the Oil Ministry and other agencies to help rebuild infrastructure, and gave advice on several of the oil and gas articles in Iraq's constitution. Before his time in Iraq, while serving in the Army Reserves, he was the president of the geological information and mapping company Geomaps. In 2008 he retired from the Army after 41 years of decorated service and now works as a geological consultant in San Antonio, Texas.