With the formation of the new Iraqi government in late-2022, the Oil Ministry fast-tracked several projects to bolster the country’s refining capacity. More than 200,000 b/d of crude distillation capacity was added by the end of last year (MEES, 22 December 2023) taking nameplate capacity close to 1mn b/d. But with output typically dominated by heavier products, the country has for long relied on imports of gasoline and middle distillates (see p12).

The Baiji complex – now known as al-Sumood (Perseverance) – was once Iraq’s largest refining center and originally consisted of three refineries – three CDUs plus their secondary units – with a total nameplate crude processing capacity of 290,000 b/d.

The Shamal (North) refinery was the largest at 150,000 b/d, but like the 70,000 b/d capacity Baiji-1 and similarly sized Baiji-2 was destroyed by the Islamic State terrorist group in 2014 (MEES, 26 September 2014). The ministry’s plan is for the refinery to be fully brought back to service this year (MEES, 3 November 2023) and in end-January test runs began at the refinery’s CDU.

The ministry’s North Refineries Company (NRC) is delivering the project with the involvement of other state-owned firms as part of the so-called ‘national effort’, as opposed to when foreign firms are directly involved in project delivery. Completing all the planned CDU and secondary units in a timely manner will be a feat, and a boost to Iraq’s efforts to reduce gasoline imports.

Q: NRC is reporting rapid progress at the 150,000 b/d Shamal refinery in Saladin province. When did the work start, what is the current progress and when do you expect full commissioning to begin?

A: Work to reconstruct the Shamal refinery began in June 2023. Current progress at all the refinery’s units has reached 53% and work is being delivered in stages. The 150,000 b/d atmospheric distillation unit [CDU] has been completed and is now working at its operational capacity. The naphtha hydrotreatment unit is also 100% complete.

Q: Rebuilding the two Baiji refineries in 2018 and 2019, which was also led by the ‘national effort’ (MEES, 1 February 2019), required cannibalizing some equipment from Shamal. The Iraqi government said it recovered some previously ransacked equipment last year (MEES, 18 August 2023). Is the re-build completely dependent on this recovered equipment? Or have you ordered new equipment as well?

A: The recovered materials have been relied upon to partially rehabilitate some of the units. The project has mainly seen new equipment manufactured by the Heavy Engineering Equipment State Company (HEESCO), a subsidiary of the oil ministry. HEESCO is provided with the needed materials by foreign and local suppliers.

Q: Strategically, how will the Shamal refinery fit into Iraq’s downstream? Can you give us an idea of the refinery’s core and auxiliary units, and final products once fully operational?

A: The Shamal refinery consists of a 150,000 b/d capacity CDU, a 40,000 b/d naphtha hydrotreatment unit, a 28,000 b/d kerosene hydrosulphurization unit, and a 20,000 b/d continuous catalytic reforming (CCR) unit. This is in addition to auxiliary production services units, including steam boilers.

Strategically, the Shamal refinery will contribute 4,200 m3/d [26,000 b/d] of high-octane gasoline production, 2,500 m3/d [16,000 b/d] kerosene, and 4,000 m3/d [25,000 b/d] gasoil. LPG production will be 1,000 m3/d [6,300 b/d].

Q: In 2010, there were proposals to build a Fluid Catalytic Cracking (FCC) complex at Baiji with financing from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). Is this still an eventual goal after the Shamal reconstruction?

A: Yes, there are plans to build an FCC complex, but this will be financed from the federal budget’s investment capital spending.

Q: Progress at the JICA-financed 55,000 b/d FCC complex at the 280,000 b/d-capacity Basrah refinery is ahead of schedule according to South Refineries Company. Will we see the FCC complex coming online before 2026? How will it impact gasoline production at the refinery and countrywide?

A: Yes, it is plausible that the Basrah refinery upgrading project could be ready before 2026. The FCC complex will produce 4,200 m3/d [26,000 b/d] of high-octane gasoline.

Q: State firms were also relied upon to complete Basrah refinery’s fourth 70,000 b/d CDU late last year after Czech firm TechnoExport was ousted (MEES, 15 September 2023). What is the unit’s current output? How much will it produce at full capacity?

A: The fourth distillation unit at the Basrah refinery has been commissioned at full capacity and is capable of producing 15,000 b/d of naphtha, 1,300 m3/d [8,000 b/d] of kerosene, 2,000 m3/d [12,500 b/d] gasoil and 35,000 b/d of heavy fuel oil.

Q: The next addition to Basrah refinery should be an 11,000 b/d isomerization unit that will convert light naphtha to 89RON gasoline. What is the progress here?

A: The isomerization unit is currently undergoing test-runs. Production from the unit should start at the beginning of March.

Q: The 140,000 b/d Karbala refinery is the most modern addition to Iraq’s refining fleet. The complex refinery was fully commissioned last September despite some technical challenges (MEES, 29 September 2023). Is Karbala now running at full capacity? What are the product output volumes?

A: The Karbala refinery currently operates at full capacity. The refinery’s production averages 7,500 m3/d [47,000 b/d] of high-octane gasoline, 2,600 m3/d [16,000 b/d] kerosene, 4,000 m3/d [25,000 b/d] gasoil, and 8,000 m3/d [50,000 b/d] fuel oil. Karbala’s fuel oil is heavy with high sulfur content.

Q: Hyundai is to help operate the refinery for another year and train Midland Refining Company’s operators. Can we say that reported equipment problems have been resolved?

A: All problems that were mentioned by [local] media have been resolved, most of these problems were not true anyway.

Q: Iraq relies on gasoline and diesel imports, but the government of PM Mohammed al-Sudani and Oil Minister Hayan Abdulghani is keen on seeing Iraq become self-sufficient within the short-to-medium term. Looking at delivered projects, and others where secondary units are to be added to existing refineries, when will Iraq become self-sufficient in gasoline and diesel?

A: Iraq has already become self-sufficient in kerosene and diesel products. The need to import gasoline will remain to the end of this year, until the isomerization unit at the Basrah refinery is commissioned as well as the CCR unit at the Shamal refinery.

Q: What import volumes are planned for this year?

A: The volume of planned gasoline imports is 7,000 m3/d [44,000 b/d], and this will be at spaced intervals which could be reduced depending on when the Basrah refinery’s isomerization and Shamal refinery’s CCR units can be commissioned. There is no need to import diesel this year.

Q: Iraq is also keen to open its refining sector to investment. There were many opportunities offered in early-2023 (MEES, 27 January 2023). Any progress here?

A: Proposals received for investment refinery projects are currently being studied by a special committee. We await the committee’s decisions for awards.

*Interview conducted by MEES Editor Yesar Al-Maleki