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Qatar—steady as she goes

Qatar's oil strategy is to stem further production declines, as it tightens its economic belt and keeps the investment focus on natural gas

If a day comes soon, with or without Opec/non-Opec consent, when Gulf oil producers decide to open the taps to the full, Qatar's contribution won't make the headlines. Saudi Arabia, with healthy spare capacity, and Kuwait—hopeful of reclaiming its 250,000-barrels a day Neutral Zone half-share and reaching its long-desired 4m b/d capacity target—are the Gulf's best hopes for adding new crude oil to the market.

Since the discovery and spectacular development of Qatar's offshore North Field and the country's meteoric ascent to the peak of liquefied natural gas producers, oil has always been something of a poor relation. In the current climate, with a harsh mixture of relatively low global oil prices and a Qatar economy that's struggling to come to terms with the Saudi-UAE-led blockade, its status is unlikely to change. Hang on as best you can, seems to be Qatar Petroleum's (QP) message to the country's oil sector.

Qatar's baseline for the Opec/non-Opec cuts was 0.648m b/d, down from peak production of more than 0.73m b/d at the start of this decade. Its current allocation is 0.618m b/d, with actual production in the 0.6m b/d range. "We'll be quite happy if we can stick with this figure for the immediate future," an oil sector official in Doha said. "We won't realistically be expecting more."

Maintaining the current production level will require enough effort in itself. Nearly half of Qatar's output comes from the offshore al-Shaheen field, 50 miles (80km) north of Ras Laffan. Up to July this year, Denmark's Maersk was the operator. The field has now been taken over by the North Oil Company (NOC), a joint venture between France's Total (30% stake and operator) and QP, (70%). The concession term is 25 years.

Al-Shaheen began production in 1994, and today 300 wells and 30 platforms are in operation. Total's task, after what's been a frosty handover from Maersk to NOC, is to expedite the drilling of new wells—the company says it has immediate plans to drill 56, using three rigs—in order to keep al-Shaheen at a 300,000 b/d plateau.

Maintaining a theoretical capacity plateau of 200,000 b/d is also QP's goal at its vast and veteran (production began in 1949) onshore Dukhan field. At present, output is in the range of around 175,000 b/d. A study for possible enhanced oil recovery operations has been carried out, and the plan is for this to begin in the next two years, QP budgets allowing. But once again, the best hope is for merely a holding operation.

There'd been plans for extra barrels to come from the offshore Bul Hanine field, also operated by QP. A proposal to more than double capacity from 40,000 b/d to 90,000 b/d was announced in May 2014, but dropped when international oil prices fell in the months thereafter. Earlier this year, engineering, procurement and construction bids were received for a Phase 1B development scheme, again with a 90,000 b/d target. But with the economic blockade prompting a reassessment of spending plans, Bul Hanine's production is unlikely soon to rise above 40,000 b/d. The fate of Qatar's oil sector, it seems, is to remain for ever in the shadow of big brother gas.

This article is part of a report series on Qatar. The next article is: Qatar hits the gas

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