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CNNMoney.com: The bad boys of oil

Most of the world’s new production is expected to come from just a few nations. That could spell big trouble for Big Oil and consumers alike.

By Steve Hargreaves, CNNMoney.com staff writer

The problem

The world still has lots of oil. But getting at it may become much harder for big Western oil companies in the coming decade. That’s because over the next 10 years, most of the world’s new production is expected to come from just a handful of countries, according to a recent report from Cambridge Energy Research Associates.

A glance at the list quickly reveals that many of those countries, for one reason or another, are difficult places for Western oil firms to operate. That could spell trouble for Exxon Mobil, Chevron, BP, Royal Dutch Shell and other multinationals whose profits and stock prices are tied to their ability to replace oil with new reserves from the ground.

It could also spell trouble for Western consumers. Many state-owned oil companies are viewed as more interested in employing local workers and limiting production to help keep oil prices high, rather than boosting output. Rising prices have only accelerated that trend.

The 15 countries with the most potential to boost production will contribute nearly 70 percent of the world’s total liquid production capacity by 2015, up from just over 60 percent today, the Cambridge Energy report says. Here’s a look at the top seven, ranked by the size of their projected increase.

Russia

The nation has the biggest reserves of natural gas worldwide and the eighth largest oil reserves. Those reserves, however, are matched by an equal degree of skepticism about the central government from Big Oil companies and investors around the world.

Many of Russia’s big, state-controlled energy companies are run by former members of the secret police. Their willingness to use energy as a weapon was made clear this past winter and the winter before, when natural gas supplies were cut off after disputes with countries whose pipelines carry gas to Europe.

Intimidation is rampant, as evidenced by the jailing of a former Yukos boss who was an outspoken critic of President Vladimir Putin.

And bullying or the threat of the same was reportedly one reason why Royal Dutch Shell recently sold its controlling interest in a massive energy project in Russia’s Far East to the gas monopoly Gazprom.

Iraq

Security is obviously concern number one in this war torn country. Experts say major Western oil firms won’t make a meaningful commitment of capital and workers to the nation until the violence subsides and a somewhat unified government passes clear oil laws.

In the meantime, firms from China, Russia, India and other smaller national oil companies are vying for contracts, and are seen as more willing to make risky investments.

It’s also unclear what role an Iraqi national oil company — still in the process of being created – will have in the nation’s oil industry. Many suspect the biggest and best fields will remain firmly in the hands of the state.

Kazakhstan

The former Soviet state, with the Caspian Sea region’s largest recoverable crude oil reserves, is fairly stable politically and lets foreign firms bid on major energy contracts.

But it is one of several countries (including the United States) that have boosted the royalties private oil companies must pay, thereby increasing the cost of doing business.

And, though not as serious as with its Middle Eastern counterparts, there are some concerns its growing economy will leave less and less energy left over for export.

Canada

Ok, so “bad boy” is pushing it.

But a big part of the country’s production growth can be attributed to its “oil sands” in the western province of Alberta.

Canada is one of the few countries with the potential to boost production quickly that is friendly to both the big foreign oil companies developing oil sands and smaller, homegrown rivals.

But the oil sands are expensive to develop, using vast amounts of energy and water. They also produce very heavy crude, which is less desirable than lighter grades of oil since it’s expensive and difficult to refine.

Saudi Arabia

The desert kingdom has the world’s biggest oil production facilities and the biggest oil reserves.

Although the Saudis are viewed as extremely reliable oil producers, since the country began nationalizing its oil industry in the 1970s access for Western firms to this vast resource has been increasingly limited. Today Saudi Aramco, the state oil firm previously controlled by Chevron, Texaco, Exxon and Mobil, pumps the overwhelming majority of the country’s oil.

As Saudi Aramco is generally seen as one of the most sophisticated oil companies in the world, there is little hope Western firms will ever again be let in on the Saudi oil bonanza.

Venezuela

Left-leaning president Hugo Chavez, long President Bush’s nemesis south of the border, has never actually said he wants Western oil firms to leave. But he sure is making it hard for them to stay.

The populist Chavez has canceled contracts, seized fields and steadily increased royalties paid by foreign firms over the last few years.

On Tuesday Chavez seized majority control of the country’s huge heavy crude Orinoco fields from BP, ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil, Chevron, France’s Total and Norway’s Statoil. The companies are invited to stay on as minority partners, but under conditions that will be no doubt less favorable to them.

Iran

An economic embargo imposed by the United States after the Iranian revolution nearly 30 years ago has kept American firms from doing business in the oil-rich theocracy.

And with the recent saber-rattling over Iran’s nuclear program, and its alleged links to insurgents in Iraq, there’s little hope that embargo will be lifted soon.

But even if it was, experts say doing business in Iran is tough. Its government is thought to squeeze foreign oil firms for all the concessions it can, despite an oil sector that many say is in desperate need of modernization.

So what’s next?

Although the prospects look bleak, Western firms are not completely locked out. Many state-owned oil companies will still cut deals with the big multinationals, just under tougher terms.

With an eye toward supplying their own growing economies, the state oil firms may be willing to give up reserves in their own country in exchange for concessions elsewhere, said David Hobbs, head of research at Cambridge Energy Research Associates.

And combining oil deals with other plans to develop a country’s infrastructure — like building ports or railroads — is another way foreign forms can secure new contracts. “Increasingly, you seeing deals with bundled components,” said Hobbs. “Resource holders are looking to use access as a way to get more economic development in the country.”

Shifting fortunes

Antoine Halff, head of energy research at Fimat in New York, said more deals are likely to involve a third party, like a smaller oil company from a developing nation, partnering alongside a major international firm to help it win access.

And of course, falling oil prices could also quickly change this new dynamic. If crude prices fall, then these countries will be forced to pump more oil — requiring more capital and technical expertise — to raise money for government budgets that have grown reliant on high oil prices.

“It’s a cyclical phenomenon,” said Halff, speaking of the growing trend toward nationalization. “But it’s a long-term cycle, and it might not last forever.”

http://money.cnn.com/galleries/2007/news/0705/gallery.oil_bad_boys/index.html

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