Qatar is forging ahead with the expansion of the world’s largest liquefied natural gas project and eyeing investment opportunities overseas despite a slump in global energy demand and the collapse of oil prices.
Saad al-Kaabi, the country’s energy minister and chief executive of Qatar Petroleum, said commercial bids for the project in the North Field, the planet’s biggest natural gasfield, would be delayed because of the Covid-19 pandemic but insisted that all contracts would be awarded by the end of the year.
“The North Field expansion project is moving full steam ahead, no delay there. The only issue is because of Covid and suppliers and so on,” Mr Kaabi said in a briefing with the US-Qatar Business Council. “In my view, you continue your plan and invest in the bad times because these projects are long term.”
The project will increase Qatar’s production capacity from 77m tonnes of LNG per annum to 110m by 2025, which could rise to 126m tonnes two years later. The move should help the small Gulf state regain the title of the world’s top LNG producer from Australia at a time when other projects have been thrown into doubt by the pandemic.
LNG prices have fallen to record lows in Asia, the centre of demand growth for the supercooled fuel, as the economic impact of the health crisis has curbed gas consumption by industry.
“There’s a lot of demand for gas around the world . . . it’s slowed down definitely because of the pandemic, prices have been low,” Mr Kaabi said. “But for us to feel the pain prices would need to be very low . . . We are going to expand and if there is room to go above 126m [tonnes per annum] you might hear us in a few years go for it.”
He said that while Qatar Petroleum was cutting costs by about 30 per cent, there was “absolutely no way” the wealthy Gulf state would be reducing its production as large oil exporters have been forced to do in a bid to stem the slide in crude prices.
“Once you have an issue with demand the most expensive people go out first, they can’t sell. So I think a whole bunch of people would have to close down LNG before it gets to us,” Mr Kaabi said. “There’s absolutely no way we will be reducing production.”
He added that the turmoil in energy markets could also create opportunities for state-owned Qatar Petroleum to accelerate its investment in international projects.
“There are opportunities that will arise and we are a company that has resources and we are in a very good financial position,” Mr Kaabi said. “Fortunately for us we may be able to take advantage of some of the situations and we can enter maybe at a better deal.”
This month, Qatar Petroleum reached agreements on three blocks in the Campeche offshore basin in Mexico and reached an agreement with Total, the French energy company, to acquire a 45 per cent participating interest in two offshore blocks in Ivory Coast.
The North Field expansion project has attracted huge interest from the world’s energy majors including Total, Royal Dutch Shell, ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips, as well as others that see it as an opportunity to invest in a fuel expected to remain more resilient than oil because of its lower emissions.
Qatar Petroleum is seeking to secure partnerships for projects overseas with the same companies and is leveraging the North Field development to boost its international expansion plans.
The global LNG market has grown rapidly in recent years, spurred by new projects in Australia and Russia and the emergence of the US as a significant exporter as the shale boom created ample supplies. However it is also fiercely competitive with many planned projects predicted to struggle to make it to completion without a quick recovery in prices internationally.
“The next few months are highly uncertain but the fundamentals of gas haven’t changed on a long-term basis — we will need more LNG supplies,” said Frank Harris at consultancy Wood Mackenzie. “When many of their rivals are logjammed it’s the perfect opportunity for Qatar to push ahead.”
Mr Kaabi said that integrated oil and gas companies in the US would still thrive but cast doubt on the ability of “single players” terminal developers to make it work. “It’s the people who can do it at the right cost structure,” he said.