Iraqi Oil Reserves

Salahodeen Abdul-Kafi
November 28, 2010

Submitted as coursework for Physics 240, Stanford University, Fall 2010

In 2008, Iraq's average oil production was around 2.4 million barrels/day. [1] That ranked as 13th among world oil producers, and less than a quarter that of the top oil producer, Saudi Arabia. [2] In contrast, Iraq's proven reserves rank fourth in the world (115 BBL) according to the US Energy Information Administration. [3] However, this number may be significantly higher, especially considering the recent flurry of activity in Iraq's oil sector. In this paper, I will discuss the steps that Iraq has taken recently to increase oil production. Considering that these numbers are all taken from the Iraqi government, which has openly suggested that a 12 million bbl. /day target is reasonable, we have to proceed with caution when looking at the projected extraction capacity from Iraq's numerous untapped wells.

The vast majority of the contacts and deals surrounding post-Saddam oil production were signed between November 2008 and March 2010. [4] These contracts cover 6 giant reservoirs that are already producing oil, as well as several "recently discovered" oil fields. These contracts call for Iraq to reach a target production capability of 12 million barrels/day by 2017, an increase of close to 9.6 million barrels/day from the current levels. [1] So let's take a look at the fields which are penned to bridge this 9.6 million barrel/day gap by 2017.

Brownfields - Already in Production

One of the most lucrative fields in Iraq is the West Qurna field, which has proven reserves of over 20 billion barrels. This field currently produces 270,000 barrels/day; a tiny amount considering it is one of the largest oil fields in the world. The contracts for Qurna, signed with ExxonMobil, Shell, Lukoil, among other companies, call for a target of 4.125 million barrels/day by 2017. [1] This number seems astronomical, considering that it is close to double the current output of the entire country (and would alone occupy the number 2 spot in the world in terms of production). [2] This number is close to the current output of the Ghawar oil field in Saudi Arabia (~ 5 million barrels/day- the world's largest producing field). [5] Also, if this production capacity was actually hit, Qurna would run out of oil in less than 15 years, which seems less than ideal given the field is not bordering other countries and would not fall under oil-sharing agreements.

Another oil field which is currently under contract is the Rumaila oil field on the border between Iraq and Kuwait, which holds proven reserves of 17.8 Bbl. Per the contracts, production here is supposed to rise from 1 million barrels/day to 2.85 million in 2017. [1] Considering the current production, this goal is not out of the question. However, there remains the problem of oil-sharing with Kuwait (coincidentally, Kuwait side-drilling in Rumaila was the "reason" Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990), which has yet to be resolved. [6] Thus, even if this number is attainable, the oil-sharing deals that would coincide with this massive increase in drilling would potentially limit Iraq's ability to extract oil at peak capacity. These two "brown" fields together are supposed to make up almost 7 million barrels/day of production, an increase of over 5.7 million barrels/day in a mere 7 years. [1]

Greenfields - Proven Reserves But No Current Drilling

One of the most interesting fields which are planned for development is the Majnoon field, located near the Iraq-Iran southeast border. This field holds approximately 12.6 Billion bbl. and Iraq's contracts call for an output of 1.8 million bbl. /day by 2017. [1] Parts of this field have actually been claimed by Iran in the past, (it was captured during the Iran-Iraq war) so production in Majnoon will require an oil-sharing agreement to prevent tensions with Iran in the future. Another notable "green" oil field is the Badra field, with an estimated reserve of 100 million barrels. This field is to produce 170,000 barrels/day by 2017. [1] Considering that at this rate, the Badra field will deplete in less than 2 years, this rate seems unreachable, and clearly unsustainable. There are 3 other fields with sub 1 Billion bbl. reserves that are supposed to hit between 230 and 110,000 barrels/day. Added together, 630,000 barrels/day (more than 25% of Iraq's current production) are supposed to be pumped out of 4 reservoirs that total 2.7 Billion bbl., which is less than 2.4% of Iraq's current reserves, yet would make up over 5% of a 12 million bbl. /day production. Again, these numbers do not seem to make sense, especially given the length of extraction before the fields run dry.

To sum up, Iraq's recent spree of contracts to develop its oil fields will go a long way towards increasing worldwide oil production numbers, but the 12 million barrel/day figure simply seems too good to be true. Upon closer inspection, the numbers do not tell the full story. 5% of Iraq's projected oil production will come from 4 relatively small reservoirs with reserves totaling less than 2.5% of Iraq's total proven reserves, one of which will take less than 2 years to run dry. In addition, portions of two oil fields which are set to produce 4.65 million barrels/day lie in disputed zones with Iran and Kuwait. Also, Iraq claims it can produce 4.125 million barrels from a single oil field (West Qurna), when the only field that has ever reached such a high number is the main Saudi field of Ghawar, which has produced over 65 billion barrels so far, and is estimated to have contained over 100 billion (5 times as much oil as Qurna) barrels upon discovery. [5]

© Salahodeen Abdul-Kafi. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] "Iraq Oil Reserves," Country Analysis Briefs, US Energy Information Agency.

[2] "Country Comparison - Oil Production,," CIA World Factbook, U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

[3] "Country Comparison - Oil Proved Reserves," CIA World Factbook, U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

[4] "Iraq Oil Field Goes to Royal Dutch Shell and Petronas," New York Times, 11 Dec 09.

[5] L. S. Durham, "Saudi Arabia's Ghawar Field: The Elephant of All Elephants," AAPG Explorer, January 2005.

[6] T. Hayes, "Confrontation in the Gulf; The Oilfield Lying Below the Iraq-Kuwait Dispute," New York Times, 3 Sep 90.