The Baghdad government has caved in to a damaging plan that will enrich western companies.
The recent cabinet agreement in Baghdad on the new draft oil law was hailed as a landmark deal bringing together the warring factions in the allocation of the country's oil wealth. What was concealed was that this is being forced through by relentless pressure from the US and will sow the seeds of intense future conflict, with serious knock-on impacts on the world economy.
The draft law, now before the Iraqi parliament, sets up "production sharing partnerships" to allow the US and British oil majors to extract Iraqi oil for up to 30 years. While Iraq would retain legal ownership of its oil, companies like Exxon, Chevron, Shell and BP that invest in the infrastructure and refineries would get a large share of the profits.
No other Middle Eastern oil producer has ever offered such a hugely lucrative concession to the big oil companies, since Opec has always run its oil business through tightly-controlled state companies. Only Iraq in its present dire condition, dependent on US troops for the survival of the government, lacks the bargaining capacity to resist.
This is not a new plan. According to documents obtained from the US State Department by BBC Newsnight under the US Freedom of Information Act, the US oil industry plan drafted early in 2001 for takeover of the Iraqi oilfields (after the removal of Saddam) was pushed aside by a secret plan, drafted just before the invasion in 2003, calling for the sell-off of all of Iraq's oilfields.
This secret plan was crafted by neo-conservatives intent on using Iraq's oil to destroy the Opec cartel through massive increases in production above Opec quotas. However, Philip Carroll, the former CEO of Shell Oil USA, who took control of Iraq's oil production for the US government a month after the invasion, stalled the sell-off scheme. As Ariel Cohen of the neo-conservative Heritage Foundation later told Newsnight, an opportunity had been missed to privatise Iraq's oilfields.
Now the plan is being revisited, or as much of it as can be salvaged after the fading of American power on the battlefield made enforced sell-off impossible. This revision of the original plan has been drafted by BearingPoint, a US consultancy firm, at the request of the US government. Significantly, it was checked first with Big Oil and the IMF and is only now being presented to the Iraqi parliament. But if accepted by the Iraqis under intense pressure, it will lock the country into weakness and dependence for decades. The neo-cons may have lost the war, but they are still manipulating to win the most substantial chunk of the peace when and if it ever comes.
It isn't difficult to see why. The super-giant oilfields of south-eastern Iraq, particularly the Majnoon and West Qurna, together with the East Baghdad field, are the largest concentration to be found anywhere in the world. Oil exploration costs are among the cheapest globally, with the current cost estimated at around 50c per barrel compared with the current retail price of about $60 a barrel. Petroleum geologists have discovered 73 major fields and identified some 239 as having a high degree of certainty. Yet only 30 fields have been partially developed and only 12 are actually on stream. Undrilled structures and undeveloped fields could represent the largest untapped hydrocarbon resource anywhere in the world. While most other Middle East countries are fully exploiting their reserves, large parts of Iraq are still virgin.
This prize is cast in even greater relief by recent assessments of the looming imminence of global peak oil production. The International Energy Agency now estimates that world production outside Opec has already peaked and that world production overall will peak between 2010 and 2020. Optimists who project large reserves remaining of over 1 trillion barrels base their figures on three illusory premises - inclusion of heavy oil and tar sands whose exploitation would entail colossal economic and environmental costs, exaggeration by Opec countries lobbying for higher production quotas within the cartel, or new drilling technologies which may accelerate production but are unlikely to expand reserves. In contrast, the pessimists are steadily gaining ground, and against this background Iraq remains potentially the last remaining major breakthrough.
Nevertheless, on every count the latest US plan to get control of Iraqi oil at almost any cost is profoundly misconceived. Even from the point of view of America's own self-interest, its security is imperilled more by the failure to develop alternative energy options than by the lack of capabilities of its weapons systems. Yet the US government continues to spend about 20 times more R&D money on the latter problem than on the former. It is still the case that funding the import of oil represents about 40% of the current US trade deficit, yet no vigorous programme in renewable technologies is being supported.
As Senator Richard Lugar and James Woolsey, former director of the CIA, said prophetically in 1999 about growing US dependence on increasingly scarce Middle Eastern oil, "our losses may come suddenly through war, steadily through price increases, agonisingly through developing nation poverty, relentlessly through climate change - or through all of them".
Secondly, in neo-conservative eyes Iraq was also required as an alternative to Saudi Arabia to provide a military base for the US to police the whole of Gulf oil. It was no longer possible for the US to maintain troops in Saudi Arabia for that purpose without risking the collapse of the dictatorial Saudi regime and its giant oil assets falling into the hands of Islamic extremists. The removal of US troops from Saudi Arabia was the principal demand contained in Osama bin Laden's fatwa of 1996. This was why, shortly after invading Iraq, the US announced that it was pulling its combat troops out of Saudi Arabia, thereby meeting Bin Laden's principal pre-9/11 political demand. But unfortunately for the US, al-Qaida is now seeking the removal of US troops from Iraq as well.
Above all, the policy is flawed by its extreme short-sightedness. Even if the US were to win its war in Iraq, which now looks virtually impossible, its incremental gain before the oil runs out would be short-term, while its exposure to intensified and unending insurgency because of perceived US seizure of Iraqi oil rights, especially if extended to Iran, would be disproportionately enormous both in the Middle East and maybe also at home. It is diametrically the opposite of the policy to which the whole world will be forced ineluctably by the accelerating onset of climate change. Perhaps the single greatest gain of the west learning this lesson of weaning itself off its oil addiction is that it would end this interference in the internal affairs of Muslim countries simply because they happen to have oil - the central cause of world conflict today.
Michael Meacher is the Labour MP for Oldham West and Royton, and was environment minister from 1997-2003. His pamphlet The Politics of Conviction: Visions of a Socialist or Social Democratic Society was published earlier this year by Catalyst.