Mark Watts

Mark Watts

The removal of nuclear-based sanctions against Iran will no doubt provide a shot in the arm for its beleaguered economy, but has come at a precarious time for oil and gas investment.

The per-barrel price of Brent crude closed at below $30 for the first time in 12 years on 14 January and international oil companies (IOCs) – which Iran is looking to attract back to the country – are announcing rounds of job cuts.

With the Iranian Oil Ministry estimating it can increase production and exports by 500,000 barrels a day (b/d) immediately after sanctions are lifted, oil prices could be pushed down further in trading on 18 January to new long-term lows.

Iran is hoping that new investment and technology can reinvigorate its oil and gas sector that has struggled during the sanctions years as IOCs pulled out of key development projects.

MEED estimated in its Opportunity Iran 2015 research report that Iran had as much as 1.2 million barrels a day (b/d) of planned crude capacity that has been stalled or delayed, largely due to difficulties with IOCs carrying out contracts on new developments.

Several IOCs also pulled out of the 24-phase, $100bn South Pars Gas Field Development, leading to major delays. Iran will be hoping to contract IOCs to complete the remaining phases of the country’s most ambitious and strategically-important project.

With global oil prices in the doldrums, it would be optimistic to expect a gold-rush-style race to sign long-term contracts on Iranian oil and gas developments.

Iran’s Mehr News Agency (MNA) reported on 16 January that France’s Total and UK-Dutch Shell Group had sent representatives to meeting Iranian officials in Tehran ahead of the sanctions announcement. However, Shell denied that it had sent anyone to Tehran.

IOCs always exercise caution, but are likely to be extra wary in dealing in a business environment that has changed considerably since the late 1990s, when the last successful IOC partnerships were carried out in Iran.

UK-based BP, one of the largest IOCs, announced on 12 January that it would cut 4,000 jobs, while Brazil’s oil giant Petrobras said it would reduce investment by 25 per cent over the next four years.

In December, Shell pledged $5bn-worth of capital spending cuts as it looked for shareholder support for a $63bn takeover of energy rival BG Group.

US groups ExxonMobil and Chevron announced in October 2015 that major capital spending cuts would be needed due to low oil prices.

In late November, Iran’s Oil Ministry distributed details of more than 50 projects that it is looking for international partners to develop but no specific information on potential revenues or production sharing. IOCs may have to wait until February to receive details on bidding for oil and gas fields.

The ministry said its event in Tehran in November attracted 137 foreign companies from large European and Asian IOCs to engineering contractors.

Total CEO Patrick Pouyanne appeared pessimistic in the weeks before the Tehran conference, despite the company previously being among the most keen to invest in Iran.

Speaking at the Adipec conference in Abu Dhabi on 10 November, Pouyanne said it was optimistic to expect deals to be quickly signed after the launch of the new oil contracts, comparing prospects in Iran to the relative lack of interest in recent oil concessions in Iraq.

The extent of interest in the Iranian oil and gas market will be seen over the coming months. Along with publicly listed European oil majors, Chinese and Russian companies are also likely to show interest in assets in post-sanctions Iran.