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Qatar hits the gas

Despite, or perhaps because of, the economic blockade, Qatar plans to expand LNG production by 30%

Qatar's new national museum, on the southern shore of Doha Bay, is taking shape. Not that it's an easy shape to describe. The building consists of large, white concrete petals, interlocking at different angles. The design is inspired by what's known as the desert rose, the effect resulting from the merging of gypsum crystals in the desert producing fragile discs that have the appearance of a petal.

It's appropriate that the new museum should acknowledge the importance of the desert in the creation of modern-day Qatar: the exploration for oil began in an arid region in the west of the country in the 1930s and subsequent onshore finds provided the revenue to fund the country's early development. But it's the sea beyond the line of palm trees outside the nearly-completed national museum—or more precisely the sea-bed—that's provided the main source of hydrocarbons responsible for Qatar's explosion of prosperity over the past couple of decades. With its vast offshore North Field (shared with Iran), Qatar sits on the third-largest reserves of natural gas in the world and has become the top producer of liquefied natural gas. Its two LNG firms, Qatargas and RasGas, between them notch up 77m tonnes in output every year.

In 2005, the Qatar government felt that things were perhaps moving too fast and decided to impose a moratorium on further North Field development to allow reservoir studies to be carried out. The energy minister at the time, Abdullah al-Attiyah, said "we have to be very careful about reserves, pressures, and how to continue for as long as we can." The last LNG venture, Qatargas 4, came on-stream in 2011.

In April this year, the moratorium came to an end. Qatar Petroleum (QP) chief executive Saad al-Kaabi said the company had been "conducting extensive studies and exerting exceptional efforts to assess the North Field, including drilling wells to better estimate its production potential". As a result, QP had decided that "now is a good time to lift the moratorium". Work would start on a new venture to produce an extra 2bn cubic feet a day of natural gas for export from a new site in the southern sector of the North Field.

The expectation was that the extra LNG production capacity needed to handle the increased output would be found by the relatively cheap method of debottlenecking the existing trains. At the end of May, QP awarded Japan's Chiyoda a contract to identify the modifications needed to raise capacity of all the trains at the Ras Laffan LNG plants.

LNG trains ready to launch

Then in July, out of the blue, QP announced that the 2bn cf/d North Field expansion plan was being doubled, and that the country's LNG output capacity would rise by 30% to reach 100m tonnes a year within five-to-seven years. Petroleum Economist soundings in Doha indicate that Qatar is lining up for a major upstream and downstream gas project that's estimated to be worth around $30bn. It will involve well drilling, the construction of an offshore receiving platform, the laying of pipes to shore, and the establishment of a new gas treatment plant (with the likelihood of some 24,000 barrels a day of condensate being produced) before the gas reaches the LNG facilities. The debottlenecking is expected to add around 10% to current capacity, taking it up from 77m t/y to about 85m t/y. The expectation at present is that two new LNG trains, each able to produce around 7.5m t/y, will be needed to process all the new gas, with capacity rising to the target 100m t/y.

No timetable has yet been decided for the new venture, but it's unlikely that QP will reach an agreement with a joint venture partner or partners before the second half of 2018. A huge amount of detail needs to be discussed, not least about the financing of the deal. Given the current constraints resulting from low global oil prices and the economic embargo, QP might want its IOC partner to shoulder the lion's share of capital expenditure. While the joint venture contract will be open to bidding, there's a strong possibility that one of the IOCs already involved in Qatargas/RasGas (including ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, Shell and Total) will be a favourite. The same goes for firms involved in the construction of the new trains.

Various explanations can be heard in Doha for QP's decision to double the already announced North Field expansion programme. One is that Qatar is concerned about Iran's increasing draw-down of gas from its half of the field (which it calls South Pars), another is that Qatar wants to send out a defiant message that it won't be intimidated by the economic embargo. In the view of Roudi Baroudi, head of Doha-based consultancy Energy & Environment Holding "the North Field has been Qatar's source of stability, and the country now wants to underpin that stability still more." Luiz Pinto of Brookings Doha also sees a link with the embargo: "The IOCs and other key foreign investors involved will lobby for international support for Qatar. The projects will also prove to be an additional source of support for the economy in the run-up to the World Cup in 2022."

After 2022, Qatar alone will bring new output to market—regaining its crown as the world's leading LNG producer.

This article is part of a report series on Qatar. The next article is: Qatar keeps calm, carries on

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