The blockade against Qatar by a coalition of Gulf states, along with Egypt, has entered its third month without a resolution in sight.
The crisis has affected the core of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), with the potential to upend the regional political equilibrium. But energy flows have remained more or less unaffected so far. This is somewhat surprising considering that the Gulf is the world’s largest source of oil and a sizeable producer of natural gas. However, if the regional rift persists, the long-term ramifications may end up being more significant than they appear to be today.
Qatar, which is at the center of the crisis, is the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG), accounting for 30 percent of global trade. Its outsized role in the market is, in part, due to its low cost of production, one of the lowest in the world. A number of things have alleviated the impact of the crisis. At the outset, both Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) banned Qatari LNG tankers from entering their ports to refuel. However, what was initially feared to be a market-disrupting blockade has proven to be more of a sporadic boycott.
By mid-June, the UAE softened its blockade at its Fujairah port, a frequent stop for Qatari vessels. The trans-boundary Dolphin pipeline, which transports 2 billion cubic feet of Qatari gas to Oman and the UAE has also seen flows continue without interruption. The UAE depends upon imported gas to generate more than half of its electricity. Qatar supplies the vast majority of this, around 19.2 billion cubic meters annually in both LNG and pipeline gas.
Early worries that Egypt would bar ships carrying Qatari cargoes from sailing in the Suez Canal, through which approximately one-tenth of the world’s LNG transits, have also not borne out. Egypt depends upon Qatari LNG imports as well to compensate for a domestic production shortfall, and is bound by international treaties to keep the waterway open unless the country is formally at war.
While the immediate repercussions of the blockade are minor, there are still several longer-term consequences worth considering. At the beginning of July, Qatar announced plans to increase its natural gas production by 20 percent from its North Field. The decision represented the lifting of a decade-long moratorium on North Field production increases, one that had been in the works prior to the GCC crisis. Nevertheless, the announcement was likely timed to project confidence even under duress, and demonstrated that Qatar was committed to bringing more gas to market regardless of an expected glut in the years ahead.
The impact on global energy markets is bound to be significant. First, the move will likely prolong growing oversupply in global gas markets, with higher-cost producers at risk of losing market share to Qatar’s low-cost production. Despite the significant costs of liquefaction, the Qataris can still compete in European markets with current Russian prices, or even more comfortably against other LNG producers in the Asia-Pacific.
This may complicate President Donald Trump’s aim to increase U.S. LNG exports, as well as Australia’s desire to become a major LNG power. Based on the current LNG terminal construction queue, analysts expect even more natural gas to hit the market in the early 2020s—including from terminals in Texas, Louisiana, and Maryland. As a result, a supply glut is likely without Qatar’s production ramp-up, casting a shadow over the five- to seven-year LNG price outlook. While Qatar’s supplies would fare well under this scenario, U.S. supply would not.
At the same time, an oversupplied global gas market would most probably generate competition among gas suppliers themselves, including over new factors such as the carbon footprint of different gas supplies. That is particularly true in large markets, such as Europe, that consider sustainability alongside price and security of supply in their energy strategy. Critical issues such as methane emissions are growing in salience, not least because at least 13 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions such as methane are already subject to some form of government-imposed price. Accordingly, there is an opportunity for LNG exporters—Qatar and others—to better measure, communicate, and compete on the basis of the GHG intensity of their gas supplies.
The crisis also comes at a time when Gulf states are attempting to reduce their own dependency on oil revenues. In particular, Saudi Arabia, the leader of the blockade against Qatar, has embarked on Vision 2030, an ambitious plan to reshape its economy. Part of this restructuring involves diversification into several non-oil sectors, including renewable energy. Riyadh plans to deploy 9.5 gigawatts of renewable energy capacity by 2023. To this end, the kingdom is already moving forward with its first round of renewable projects, totaling 700 megawatts. The UAE, too, has already deployed several megawatts of solar energy with plans to quickly ramp up. To fully benefit from fluctuating, variable energy sources such as wind and solar power, Gulf states need to expand their power grids beyond their borders, as interconnections reduce the amount of reserve power generation required and improve security of supply.
GCC members already share a grid that helps avoid blackouts, but it has yet to live up to its true potential. For example, Saudi Arabia, the largest member, can only import or export 1,200 megawatts at a time, representing 2 percent of its generation capacity. GCC countries will need to add more transmission lines linking national grids to solve this problem.
Building a 21st century, interconnected energy system will require that the GCC work on more than just infrastructure. Patchwork market policies also impede regional cooperation on power generation. Countries need to be willing to dismantle bureaucracies and harmonize disparate regulations to create a true power trading market.
Finally, if the GCC fails to band together, the impact of climate change will be all the more disastrous. Warming in the Middle East is increasing two times faster than the global average, which could lead to drought, conflict, and disease. If staving off this future requires trust and collaboration among Gulf states, the GCC will the be the forum for this to take place. Doha may be able to endure the blockade as it stands, but it will be hard for any small nation to stand against climate change without its neighbors.