Exxon Mobil Corp. is in the advanced stages of talks with potential buyers to take on Iraq's West Qurna 1 oil field and there are enough appropriate candidates, the country's deputy prime minister for energy said.
"A decision will have to be made shortly. To transfer the assets will take some time, but it will be sooner (than the middle of next year)," Hussain al-Shahristani told Reuters on Tuesday.
"There are sufficient number of interested buyers with the financial resources and the technical know-how to buy their interest," Mr. Shahristani earlier told reporters.
Exxon Mobil, which has signed oil deals in Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan region that are seen as more lucrative but dismissed by the central government as illegal, has informed the Iraqi government it wants to pull out of the $50-billion (U.S.) West Qurna-1 project in southern Iraq.
Uncertainty over who can replace the U.S. oil major in the important project have raised questions about Iraq's target to increase crude output to five million to six million barrels per day by 2015 from 3.4 million bpd.
Mr. Shahristani told reporters on the sidelines of the Oil and Money conference in London that Exxon would soon hand over the field to a company that had the capabilities to exploit it.
He declined to say how many companies there were involved in the process or to identify their country of origin.
"Exxon Mobil has already specified deadlines to submit the bids and as soon as they receive their bids, there is more than one interested qualified buyer," he said.
"As soon as (Exxon) make a request to us to allow them to sell the interest to that buyer, then it will be known how long it will take them to finalize the arrangements. We have already agreed with Exxon on the timetables to finalize the arrangement," he added.
Some industry sources have said Baghdad is keen to replace Exxon with companies from Russia or China. But it was unclear which companies would have the financial heft to follow Exxon.
Russia's second largest crude producer Lukoil said on Friday it would study an offer from Exxon to take over West Qurna-1, Interfax news agency said.
Lukoil, which is already developing West Qurna-2, has previously said West Qurna-1 is "too big for it to swallow," but on Friday it said it would at least look into the proposal.
Turning to OPEC policy matters, Mr. Shahristani said some members of the Organization for Petroleum Exporting Countries should cut their current levels of production.
"The total quota for OPEC is 30 million barrels per day, OPEC is producing 31 million bpd, so there are some members overproducing their quotas. We are calling, and some other members are calling, for the quotas to be observed," he said.
"There is no need for overproduction, the market is well-supplied, prices are stable, there is no great demand, so there is no need to over-produce," Mr. Shahristani added.
He said he was comfortable with oil prices around present levels. Benchmark Brent crude was trading on Tuesday near $108 a barrel.
"The current price around $100 per barrel is one which will encourage investors to keep on developing marginal fields and it's a price that will not impact economic development in the rest of the world."