• Even if its threat to Iraq's oil exports can be contained, the newly asserted "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" has altered the political risk of projects there.
  • That could hamper future production that was expected to be a major factor in meeting growing oil demand later this decade.

Last month's blitzkrieg advance of Al Qaeda spinoff ISIS in northwestern Iraq rattled global oil markets and politicians. Oil prices have risen by only a few dollars, reflecting the remoteness of the current threat from Iraq's main producing region and validating OPEC's recent characterization of the global oil market as "adequately supplied." Yet even as the rebel offensive appears to stall, the escalation of risk in Iraq and its neighbors could affect geopolitics, oil supplies and fuel prices for the rest of the decade.

Iraq currently exports around 2.7 million barrels per day (MBD) of oil, or 7% of global oil exports. It is effectively the number two producer in OPEC. Having recovered beyond pre-war levels, Iraq's oil industry has been growing, while Iran's exports are constrained by international sanctions and Libya's output has become highly erratic following that country's revolution.

In the International Energy Agency's latest Medium-Term Oil Market Report Iraq accounts for 60% of OPEC's incremental production capacity through 2019 (see chart below) and nearly a fifth of all new barrels expected to come to market in that period. This is a more conservative view of Iraq's growth potential than in previous scenarios, but it still leaves Iraqi oil, together with " tight oil" in the US and elsewhere, as the bright spots of the IEA's supply forecast.

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Following ISIS's capture of Mosul in northern Iraq, the Heard on the Street column in the Wall St. Journal painted a stark picture of how the destabilization of Iraq could limit investment in the country's oil industry, truncating its expansion. That would increase longer-term oil price volatility and make investments elsewhere more attractive, not just in North American tight oil but also in energy efficiency and alternatives to oil.

Warning signs seem ample. The "Islamic State in Iraq and Syria" might never capture Baghdad or directly threaten the giant oil fields of southern Iraq that are reviving with help from international firms like BP, ExxonMobil and Shell. However, ISIS's actions in the territory they now control, and the fears they incite across a much larger swath of Iraq, are sparking renewed sectarian violence and prompting foreign companies to evacuate personnel. This undermines the IEA's medium-term forecast, which despite being "laden with downside risk" will apparently not be revised in light of recent events. It also raises the potential for jumps in nearer-term oil and petroleum product prices.

It is noteworthy that oil prices haven't gone up significantly, as they did when Libya's revolution began. From February 15 to April 15, 2011 the price of UK Brent Crude jumped 22%.  Iraq's troubles added about 5% to the Brent price, some of which has already dissipated. However, average US gasoline prices are $0.21 per gallon ahead of their level for the same week last year, in part because tensions in Iraq and elsewhere have forestalled the typical post-Memorial Day price drop.

The market's relatively muted response could change abruptly if the Iraqi military suffered further setbacks at the hands of ISIS and its allies, or if ISIS turned its attention to the oil infrastructure of central and southern Iraq. They attacked the country's largest refinery at Baiji, north of Baghdad, and I have seen conflicting reports of its current status.

As several analysts have noted, anything that threatened the country's oil exports, most of which pass through the Gulf port of Basra, could send oil prices substantially higher. That's because other supply outages have reduced usable spare production capacity elsewhere--oil that isn't now being produced but could ramp up quickly--to less than 4 MBD, a narrower margin than in several years. Even if lost Iraqi output were made up by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the further contraction of spare capacity would drastically increase price volatility and boost oil prices from today's level, until Iraq's exports--or Iran's--were restored.

Nor would booming domestic oil and gas-liquids production, which is surely helping to hold down global oil prices, insulate US consumers from increases at the gas pump. The oil that US refineries process and the products they sell are still priced based on the global market. If Brent crude spikes, so will US gasoline and diesel. That would have less impact on the US economy than in the past, when imports made up a much higher share of supply, but shifting money from the pockets of consumers to those of oil company shareholders is rarely popular.

An Iraq-driven oil price spike would affect politics and geopolitics, too. An unstable Iraq makes it more difficult to maintain the sanctions pressure on Iran, particularly if the US and Iran ended up coordinating their responses  in Iraq. It's even harder to envision a consensus on keeping  more than 1 MBD of Iran's oil bottled up if oil prices returned to $150/bbl.

That could also complicate the debate over exporting US crude oil, already a tough sell for politicians who came up during the era of energy scarcity. As a practical matter, if exports began while prices were rising sharply for other reasons, convincing US voters that the two factors were unrelated would be challenging. A full-blown oil crisis in Iraq or the wider Middle East would likely result in the idea being tabled for an extended period.

It's tempting to view the success of ISIS in seizing territory on both sides of the Iraq/Syria border as a temporary outgrowth of Syria's civil war. If that were the case, the situation might revert to the status quo ante, once the Iraqi army--with some outside help--mopped up ISIS.

Even if this genie could be rebottled, however, the aftermath of the Iraq War and the "Arab Spring" revolutions is exerting  great stresses on the post-World War I regional order, overlaid on 13 centuries of animosity between Sunnis and Shi'ites.  An accident of history and geology has made this area home to much of the world's undeveloped conventional onshore oil reserves. Can its stability be restored with a few deft military and diplomatic moves, or might that require a complete rethinking of boundaries and nations, as recently suggested by the foreign affairs columnist of the Washington Post?

A different version of this posting was previously published on the website of Pacific Energy Development Corporation.