Image used for illustrative purpose only. Image Credit: Akbar Tavakkoli, IRNA
5 minutes read

Iran Awards Critical Oil Projects To Inexperienced Domestic Firms

A week after signing a $20 billion natural gas extraction contract with domestic companies, Iran has granted a new $13 billion deal to the same group for expanding production at six oil fields.

These contracts, announced on Sunday, aim to increase the country’s oil production capacity by 200,000 barrels per day. However, most of the contracts are associated with a highly complex project that has awaited Western technology for years.

The largest of these contracts involves the development of the Azadegan oil field, which is shared with Iraq (known as Majnoon in Iraq). China’s Sinopec began work on this field but left it half-finished in 2018 after the United States imposed sanctions on Iran. Azadegan is Iran’s largest oil reserve, but its structure is extremely complex, with only a 6% recovery rate. In simpler terms, under normal conditions, only 6% of its oil reserves can be extracted, leaving 94%, equivalent to 31 billion barrels worth $2.6 trillion, inaccessible without advanced Western technology.

On March 17, the Iranian oil ministry signed an $11.5 billion contract with 11 domestic firms, led by Advand Azadegan Company. This entity, established only in December 2022, lacks a significant track record in oil exploration and extraction. Another contract pertains to Masjid Soleyman, Iran’s oldest oil field, which began producing oil 113 years ago but has faced a significant decline in production. Despite still holding 5 billion barrels of oil reserves, it requires increased pressure and recovery rate enhancement.

Masjedsoleyman’s productivity has declined sharply from 170,000 b/d in 2017 to 5,000 in 2023. The new contract aims to add only 9,000 b/d to the current level, with 80% of its reserves remaining untapped. Iran’s oil fields, with 650 billion barrels of oil in situ reserves, typically have a recovery rate of about 20%, highlighting the need for advanced Western technology to boost extraction rates.

Each 1% increase in the oil recovery rate translates to $550 billion more in revenue for Iran. However, it remains unclear what technology domestic companies will employ for these developments. Moreover, the question arises: if domestic firms possess this capability, why were these complex fields not entrusted to them earlier?

About 80% of Iran’s active oil fields are in the latter half of their life cycle, experiencing an annual productivity decline of 8-12%. To maintain production levels, Iran requires 300 million cubic meters of gas injection into these fields, yet it only injects 30 mcm/d due to natural gas shortages.

Other four contracts

In addition to these two fields, contracts for the development of Azar, Somar, Saman, and Delavaran oil fields will also be signed with domestic companies. Previously, Iran had contracted the development of the Azar oil field with Russia’s Gazprom, but the company’s delays led to the cancellation of the contract last year. Similarly, over two decades ago, the government had signed the same contract with IRGC’s Khatam-al Anbiya Construction Headquarters, yielding no results. Subsequently, a memorandum of understanding was signed with Polish PGNiG in 2017, also without any tangible progress.

Iran’s oil ministry announced the signing of three contracts to develop the Somar, Saman, and Delavaran oil fields on March 17. However, Mehdi Heidari, CEO of the Iranian Offshore Oil Company, responsible for operating these fields, stated in June 2022 that domestic companies were already engaged in their development.

Participants posing for a group photo at a signing ceremony to develop several Iranian oil and gas fields, Tehran, March 17, 2024

 

$20-billion worth gas contract

Iran’s Oil Ministry finalized a $20-billion agreement with multiple domestic firms on March 10 to erect 28 platforms, each weighing 7,000 tons, and install 56 compressors to enhance pressure at South Pars. This move is made despite Iranian companies’ lack of experience in manufacturing such equipment, and even Chinese firms lack the requisite technology. Chinese CNPC, previously part of the Total-led South Pars Phase 11 development consortium, exited the deal a year after Total. Notably, half of the $5-billion contract value for the South Pars Phase 11 development was allocated to constructing a 20,000-ton platform with two massive compressors, a task surpassing the capabilities and technological know-how of the Chinese company.

Until recently, the wellhead pressure in the Iranian sector of South Pars remained steady at an average of 210 bars. However, since 2023, its pressure has started declining by 7 bars annually, resulting in a loss of 10 bcm each year. Significant pressure fall in Phase 12, the largest phase of South Pars, has already begun in recent years, with output levels declining from 65 mcm/d in 2018 to the current 43 mcm/d, according to a report from the National Iranian Gas Company, as reported by Iran International.

Iran had ambitious plans to produce 85 mcm/d of gas from Phase 12 by launching three platforms. However, due to erroneous drilling engineering at the location of the third platform, a substantial portion of its production turned out to be brackish water instead of natural gas. Consequently, production from this phase was slashed to 65 mcm in 2018 and dropped to 34% in 2023. Ultimately, Iran relocated the third platform from Phase 12 entirely to Phase 11 of South Pars last summer.

Across the 24 phases constituting the Iranian section of South Pars, approximately 10 wells have encountered engineering mishaps, resulting in the production of more brackish water than gas. In an effort to salvage production levels, Iran initiated Phase 11 of South Pars in August 2023 and launched a drilling spree. Additionally, the Iranian Ministry of Petroleum inked a deal in November 2023 to drill 35 new wells with domestic companies. However, while additional drilling may sustain gas production levels from South Pars in the short term, it is anticipated to hasten pressure decline in the Iranian section.

Iran’s only recourse lies in the installation of 20,000-ton platforms equipped with massive compressors—a technology monopolized by Western companies. Currently, all 24 phases of the Iranian side of the field are operational, leaving no room for the introduction of a new phase to bolster production or offset output declines from other phases.

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