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NATURAL GAS NEWS‘ Geopolitical Implications of Global Decarbonization for MENA producing countries by Pier Paolo Raimondi and Simone Tagliapietra, Oxford Institute for Energy Studies (OIES) is an expert’s hindsight in the foreseeable future of the region.

Endowed with half of the world’s proven oil and gas reserves, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region represents a cornerstone of the established global energy architecture. As the clean-energy transition gains momentum worldwide, this architecture might shrink—challenging the socio-economic and geopolitical foundations of the region in general, and of its oil and gas-producing countries in particular.

The picture above is for illustration purpose and is of Natural resource wealth and public social spending in the Middle East and North Africa published back in 2015.

Geopolitical Implications of Global Decarbonization for MENA producing countries

February 21, 2021

This challenge has two dimensions: domestic and international. Domestically, a decline in global oil and gas demand would reduce revenues for producing countries. Considering the profound dependency of these countries on oil and gas rents (the ‘rentier state’ model), this could have serious economic and social consequences. Internationally, the global clean-energy transition might push producers towards a fierce competition for global market share, exacerbating geopolitical risks both regionally and globally.

In 2020, MENA oil and gas producers experienced a situation that some observers have described as a preview of what the future might look like for them beyond 2030, as global decarbonization unfolds. The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in an unprecedented crash in global oil demand. At the same time, oil prices collapsed (for the first time in history, the benchmark West Texas Intermediate entered negative territory) due to a lethal combination of falling demand and OPEC+ coordination failure. All this generated a perfect storm for MENA oil- and gas-producing countries, which led to unprecedented macroeconomic imbalances.

The evolution of oil markets, national stability, and prosperity as well as international influence are closely linked in the MENA region, but MENA oil- and gas-producing countries are far from homogenous. Different countries are likely to experience different impacts from the global clean-energy transition, depending on a number of domestic and international factors.

International factors

MENA producers are likely to be affected by the differences in the trajectories for oil and gas markets, the speed of the energy transition in different world markets, increased competition between energy producers, and increasing penalties for carbon intensity in production.

While gas is set to play a role in the global energy mix for decades, oil is expected to lose relevance as a result of decarbonization policies and technological developments in electric vehicles. BP’s 2020 Energy Outlook warned about the imminence of peak oil demand. In its business-as-usual scenario, oil demand is set to recover from the pandemic by 2025 but drop slowly thereafter. In its rapid-energy-transition scenario, oil demand drops from around 100 million barrels per day (mb/d) in 2019 to 89 mb/d in 2030 and just 47 mb/d in 2050. Such a scenario would represent a challenge for MENA oil producers. By contrast, in the business-as-usual scenario, gas demand is expected to increase from 3.8 trillion cubic meters (tcm) in 2018 to 5 tcm in 2040, underpinned by a massive coal-to-gas switch in Asia and elsewhere. Such a scenario would be beneficial for MENA gas-producing countries such as Qatar and Algeria, which could remain geopolitically relevant by providing an important transition fuel to a decarbonizing world.

In the MENA region, Qatar seems to be the best positioned to preserve its geopolitical role, thanks to its significant liquified natural gas (LNG) capacity and its geographical location between Europe and Asia. Nevertheless, gas-producing countries will not be immune to the challenges posed by decarbonization policies in the long run. Gas demand is especially difficult to predict starting in the second half of the 2030s, as a result of increasing cost competition in power generation from renewables, as well as stricter environmental regulations (e.g. the EU Methane Strategy). It will thus be of paramount importance for MENA gasproducing countries to cut emissions in their gas value chain, in order to preserve their position and geopolitical influence.

The speeds of the energy transition in different world regions will also affect MENA geopolitical shifts. For instance, Europe’s oil and liquids demand is expected to decrease from the current 13.3 million tons of oil equivalent (Mtoe) to 8.6 Mtoe in 2040, according to the International Energy Agency’s stated-policies scenario. By contrast, Asia-Pacific countries’ oil and liquids demand is set to increase from the current 32.5 Mtoe to 37.9 Mtoe in 2040. Thus, MENA producers more exposed to the European market are likely to suffer more—and earlier—from the global decarbonization process than others more exposed to Asian markets. That is, energy demand will increasingly dominate energy geopolitics, especially in an oversupplied energy market.

In such a scenario, export portfolio composition and diversification will determine the evolution of geopolitical influence for MENA oil and gas producers. Exporters that depend heavily on European markets will see their geopolitical position erode and their revenues fall. For example, Algeria, which mostly exports gas via pipeline to Europe, has been an essential element of the European gas supply architecture. Unless it manages to decarbonize its gas exports, this important role will shrink as the European Green Deal is implemented. In 2019, 85 per cent of Algeria’s total gas exports flowed to Europe, 62 per cent via pipeline (mainly to Italy and Spain). By contrast, LNG provides more flexibility to gas exporters, which will enable them to respond effectively to the geographical shifts of the energy demand. Qatar is the world’s top LNG exporter. In 2019, Qatar exported 83 per cent of its total gas exports via LNG. Of this volume, 67 per cent was directed to Asia Pacific countries. Asian markets are expected to drive energy demand growth in general and LNG in particular until 2030. Oil and gas producers will increasingly try to gain market share in such growing energy markets.

While energy demand will be crucial in the future, energy supply issues will not disappear. Competition among producers will persist, and even increase in the foreseeable future. The peak of oil demand will create a harsher world of more intense competition and tighter revenues for MENA oil producers. Regional oil and gas producers are likely to pursue different supply strategies, which will need to deal with the consequence of the global energy transition.

The transition indeed raises an existential dilemma—requiring a choice between maximizing production, which would weaken higher-cost exporters, and coordinating production cuts to increase prices, which could deprive governments of vital revenues. These are not trivial issues, as maximization of production would put into question established assumptions about saving reserves for future production and avoiding stranded assets. An intensification of competition among producers could thus undermine coordinated actions (e.g. OPEC agreements), which are important to oil price stability. This was illustrated by the collapse of OPEC+ talks in March 2020—spurred by disagreements between Saudi Arabia and Russia on the introduction of production quotas, as the two were also competing for market share with US shale oil producers—and the consequent fall in oil prices.

Another example of the growing competition among producers is the growing opposite visions between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia that emerged openly during OPEC talks in late 2020. Although they managed to reach an agreement within OPEC, the UAE’s ambitious plans to increase its oil capacity from about 4 mb/d to 5 mb/d by 2030 puts further pressure on the traditional alignment among Gulf OPEC producers. Moreover, in late 2020 the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company announced a $122 billion investment plan for 2021–2025, suggesting that the UAE had abandoned its more cautious approach to the oil sector. The plan suggested that MENA national oil companies might gain a growing share of world oil and gas production in the future. That is also due to (Western) oil companies’ decisions to cut their capital expenditure and other investments. Such decisions are motivated mostly by low oil prices and their commitment to decarbonization.

In a more competitive world, some MENA producing countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE have the economic advantage of vast oil reserves (298 and 97 billion barrels, respectively), the lowest production costs (under $4 per barrel), and the least carbon-intense production. In the next years, due to expected higher carbon prices, carbon intensity will play a key role in determining which oil and gas producers will be able to preserve their geopolitical influence. MENA oil producers with higher production carbon intensity, such as Algeria and Iraq, might thus lag behind.

Domestic factors

The global energy transition can also impact MENA oil- and gas-producing countries’ governance, due to their heavy dependence on revenues from these resources. To address this issue, regional oil and gas producers have launched several strategies (referred to as Visions) aimed at economic diversification (e.g. by increasing productivity, strengthening the private sector, and developing non-oil sectors), as well as increasing the share of renewables in the energy mix. These Visions were largely developed as a response to the 2014 oil price drop; COVID-19 and the acceleration of the global energy transition make it necessary to accelerate them. A country’s chances of success at this are likely to be affected by domestic factors including population size, government capacity, and financial ability to implement diversification measures.

Countries with a large, young, and growing population (Algeria, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq) will encounter significant obstacles to the transformation of their rentier-state model. By contrast, countries with a smaller population, like the UAE and Qatar (9.7 and 2.8 million inhabitants, respectively) are likely to find it easier to adjust.

The ability to govern and finance major domestic socio-economic transformation will also be crucial. For example, North African countries could exploit their geographical vicinity to Europe and become major clean-electricity suppliers. In this sense, the recent EU Hydrogen Strategy considers imports of 40 GW of green hydrogen from the EU’s eastern and southern neighbours. However, countries like Algeria and Libya are experiencing major social and political instability, which undermines such scenarios and discourages the needed foreign investments. Thus, countries with major governance issues like Algeria, Libya, and Iraq are expected to lag behind on energy and economic diversification. The risk is that these countries will focus political energies on an intensifying fight for a share of the diminishing global oil and gas market, rather than on a strategy to reorient their economy. By contrast, countries with stronger governance are better equipped to transform their economies, bear the negative consequences of the transition in the short term, and navigate the geopolitical evolution.

The availability of large foreign exchange reserves will be crucial for the transformation of MENA producing countries. With such reserves, countries could offset the negative economic effects of lower oil demand and revenues in the short term, while investing in renewable energy projects for the medium and long term. Thus, countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar (with $500, $108 and $38 billion of foreign reserves, respectively) are potentially well equipped to manage the negative effects of lower revenues and foster economic transformation. Additionally, countries with large sovereign wealth funds could use them as an integral part of the diversification effort, for example to finance research and development and renewable-energy projects in MENA countries.

Producers with large foreign exchange reserves, sizable sovereign wealth funds, and small populations to appease are potentially the best placed to navigate the uncharted waters of the global energy transition.

MENA oil and gas producers have also considered developing their high renewable-energy potential, especially solar. This could help them pursue several goals, including economic diversification and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. It could also free additional oil and gas volumes, currently used to meet fast-growing domestic energy demand, for sale abroad to produce additional revenue—thus avoiding the negative economic effects of growing energy consumption and positioning themselves as major renewable powers in a low-carbon future.

More recently, MENA oil and gas producers have begun to consider the growing interest in hydrogen as a way to preserve their geopolitical influence and remain pivotal actors in the future energy system. Given the region’s abundant renewable energy and carbon capture and storage potential, MENA countries could be at the forefront in both the green and blue hydrogen markets. In the short and medium term, blue hydrogen could benefit from its cost advantages. In the longer term, the MENA countries could exploit their excellent solar conditions and low-cost renewables in order to produce and export green hydrogen. Three MENA oil producers (Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Oman) have announced major hydrogen plans. For example, in July 2020 an international consortium announced plans for a $5 billion green renewables and hydrogen plant in Saudi Arabia, which aims to begin shipping ammonia to global markets by 2025. In September 2020 Saudi Arabia shipped 40 tons of blue ammonia to Japan in a pilot project undertaken by Saudi Aramco and the petrochemical giant Sabic.

Conclusions

The global energy transition will inevitably affect MENA oil- and gas-producing countries, both macroeconomically and geopolitically. However, not all MENA countries will see their geopolitical influence change in the same way. Some countries are better equipped than others to offset the negative effects domestically and internationally. Internationally, MENA oil and gas producers will start to focus more on energy demand differences among world regions. MENA countries with lowest-cost and least-carbon-intensive production are better positioned to preserve their geopolitical influence. Moreover, export portfolio composition and diversification will crucially define whether a country will lead or lag behind in the energy transition. Oil and gas producers are also endowed with an abundant renewable potential, another possible route to future energy leadership.

Nevertheless, competition among producers will remain or even increase, potentially undermining coordinated efforts to stabilize oil prices. Due to the strong link between hydrocarbons and the nature of the state in the MENA region, the domestic sphere will be a key element in the geopolitical shifts. Population size, strong governance, and the financial ability to adapt to change will help some MENA oil and gas producers to preserve their geopolitical role, while managing domestic socio-economic transformation.

Originally publishes by the Oxford Institute For Energy Studies.

The statements, opinions and data contained in the content published in Global Gas Perspectives are solely those of the individual authors and contributors and not of the publisher and the editor(s) of Natural Gas World.

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