In 2005, the tiny Persian Gulf nation of Qatar declared a moratorium on production at its North Field. Natural gas from this giant field, part of a larger reservoir that straddles Qatari and Iranian borders, had helped Qatar ramp up production, eight years after it exported its first cargo of LNG to Spain in 1997. The halt came as a bit of a surprise back then, seen as limiting, but in hindsight was a great move. Existing projects with partners ExxonMobil, Shell and Total were more than enough to vault Qatar to become the largest LNG exporter in the world, and there were technically challenging projects like the Pearl and Oryx Gas-to-Liquids (GTL) refineries that demanded attention.
The logic, then, was to prevent overexploitation of the precious North Field, particularly since it was shared with Iran, where it is known as South Pars. Detailed studies on the structure of the field have estimated that, at current production rates, Qatar still has about 135 years of gas reserves underground. With most of the giant Qatari projects now complete, the country can afford to exploit a little more. So 12 years later, the moratorium has been lifted.
Qatar Petroleum (QP), the state oil firm, intends new development to be confined to the southernmost part of the North Field, running almost onshore, contributing a 10% increase – or 2 bcf/d or 400,000 barrels of oil equivalent in national production. It comes after QP merged its two gas subsidiaries – RasGas and Qatargas – into a single entity called Qatargas in December 2016, streamlining the business structure of its gas operations. Together with partners ExxonMobil, Total, Shell and ConocoPhillips, the new Qatargas will operate all Qatari LNG production, while the newly-established Ocean LNG will manage the international marketing of all Qatari LNG.
Put all of those announcements together and the picture is clear; Qatar is moving aggressively to retain its crown as the world’s top LNG exporter, fending off Australia, the USA and Russia as they ramp up their respective output. The flurry of LNG production has resulted in global installed LNG capacity of over 300 million tonnes a year, while only around 268 million tonnes of LNG were traded in 2016, Thomson Reuters data shows. That has helped pull down Asian spot LNG prices LNG-AS by more than 70 percent from their 2014 peaks to $5.65 per million British thermal units (mmBtu).
With LNG prices already waning due to the existing and growing glut, what good will it do for Qatar to add more to the mix?
Qatar's decision to lift the moratorium is indicative that the country will not just do nothing while other large producers pick-up more customers in a growing market. For one thing, Qatari costs are low. Qatari LNG is already one of the cheapest to produce in the world, and any new North Field output can be tapped back into infrastructure already in place – allowing Qatar to better weather low LNG prices than say Australia, where Chevron has had to deal with massive ramp-ups in costs for the Gorgon and Wheatstone.
Secondly, the QP announcement pointedly did not mention whether the new gas will become LNG. Which means Qatargas is looking at other options. More GTL and Gas-to-Petrochemical projects, perhaps? Or perhaps feeding the natural gas demand of its Gulf neighbours? The UAE, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are short on natural gas, so a trans-Arabian Peninsula pipeline might be just what is needed. QP Chief Executive Saad al-Kaabi told reporters at Qatar Petroleum's headquarters in Doha, "What we are doing today is something completely new and we will in future of course share information on this with them (Iran)."
The lifting of the North Field moratorium also comes just in time since Qatar’s domestic oil and gas production is plateauing, kicking off the next phase of Qatari growth. And when that next phase begins to end, well, Qatar still has a whole lot more of the North Field to tap into. Saad al-Kaabi continued to say that "For oil there are people who see peak demand in 2030, others in 2042, but for gas, demand is always growing."
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In 2021, the makeup of renewables has also changed drastically. Technologies such as solar and wind are no longer novel, as is the idea of blending vegetable oils into road fuels or switching to electric-based vehicles. Such ideas are now entrenched and are not considered enough to shift the world into a carbon neutral future. The new wave of renewables focus on converting by-products from other carbon-intensive industries into usable fuels. Research into such technologies has been pioneered in universities and start-ups over the past two decades, but the impetus of global climate goals is now seeing an incredible amount of money being poured into them as oil & gas giants seek to rebalance their portfolios away from pure hydrocarbons with a goal of balancing their total carbon emissions in aggregate to zero.
Traditionally, the European players have led this drive. Which is unsurprising, since the EU has been the most driven in this acceleration. But even the US giants are following suit. In the past year, Chevron has poured an incredible amount of cash and effort in pioneering renewables. Its motives might be less than altruistic, shareholders across America have been particularly vocal about driving this transformation but the net results will be positive for all.
Chevron’s recent efforts have focused on biomethane, through a partnership with global waste solutions company Brightmark. The joint venture Brightmark RNG Holdings operations focused on convert cow manure to renewable natural gas, which are then converted into fuel for long-haul trucks, the very kind that criss-cross the vast highways of the US delivering goods from coast to coast. Launched in October 2020, the joint venture was extended and expanded in August, now encompassing 38 biomethane plants in seven US states, with first production set to begin later in 2021. The targeting of livestock waste is particularly crucial: methane emissions from farms is the second-largest contributor to climate change emissions globally. The technology to capture methane from manure (as well as landfills and other waste sites) has existed for years, but has only recently been commercialised to convert methane emissions from decomposition to useful products.
This is an arena that another supermajor – BP – has also made a recent significant investment in. BP signed a 15-year agreement with CleanBay Renewables to purchase the latter’s renewable natural gas (RNG) to be mixed and sold into select US state markets. Beginning with California, which has one of the strictest fuel standards in the US and provides incentives under the Low Carbon Fuel Standard to reduce carbon intensity – CleanBay’s RNG is derived not from cows, but from poultry. Chicken manure, feathers and bedding are all converted into RNG using anaerobic digesters, providing a carbon intensity that is said to be 95% less than the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions of pure fossil fuels and non-conversion of poultry waste matter. BP also has an agreement with Gevo Inc in Iowa to purchase RNG produced from cow manure, also for sale in California.
But road fuels aren’t the only avenue for large-scale embracing of renewables. It could take to the air, literally. After all, the global commercial airline fleet currently stands at over 25,000 aircraft and is expected to grow to over 35,000 by 2030. All those planes will burn a lot of fuel. With the airline industry embracing the idea of AAF (or Alternative Aviation Fuels), developments into renewable jet fuels have been striking, from traditional bio-sources such as palm or soybean oil to advanced organic matter conversion from agricultural waste and manure. Chevron, again, has signed a landmark deal to advance the commercialisation. Together with Delta Airlines and Google, Chevron will be producing a batch of sustainable aviation fuel at its El Segundo refinery in California. Delta will then use the fuel, with Google providing a cloud-based framework to analyse the data. That data will then allow for a transparent analysis into carbon emissions from the use of sustainable aviation fuel, as benchmark for others to follow. The analysis should be able to confirm whether or not the International Air Transport Association (IATA)’s estimates that renewable jet fuel can reduce lifecycle carbon intensity by up to 80%. And to strengthen the measure, Delta has pledged to replace 10% of its jet fuel with sustainable aviation fuel by 2030.
In a parallel, but no less pioneering lane, France’s TotalEnergies has announced that it is developing a 100% renewable fuel for use in motorsports, using bioethanol sourced from residues produced by the French wine industry (among others) at its Feyzin refinery in Lyon. This, it believes, will reduce the racing sports’ carbon emissions by an immediate 65%. The fuel, named Excellium Racing 100, is set to debut at the next season of the FIA World Endurance Championship, which includes the iconic 24 Hours of Le Mans 2022 race.
But Chevron isn’t done yet. It is also falling back on the long-standing use of vegetable oils blended into US transport fuels by signing a wide-ranging agreement with commodity giant Bunge. Called a ‘farmer-to-fuelling station’ solution, Bunge’s soybean processing facilities in Louisiana and Illinois will be the source of meal and oil that will be converted by Chevron into diesel and jet fuel. With an investment of US$600 million, Chevron will assist Bunge in doubling the combined capacity of both plants by 2024, in line with anticipated increases in the US biofuels blending mandates.
Even ExxonMobil, one of the most reticent of the supermajors to embrace renewables wholesale, is getting in on the action. Its Imperial Oil subsidiary in Canada has announced plans to commercialise renewable diesel at a new facility near Edmonton using plant-based feedstock and hydrogen. The venture does only target the Canadian market – where political will to drive renewable adoption is far higher than in the US – but similar moves have already been adopted by other refiners for the US market, including major investments by Phillips 66 and Valero.
Ultimately, these recent moves are driven out of necessity. This is the way the industry is moving and anyone stubborn enough to ignore it will be left behind. Combined with other major investments driven by European supermajors over the past five years, this wider and wider adoption of renewable can only be better for the planet and, eventually, individual bottom lines. The renewables ball is rolling fast and is only gaining momentum.
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