An oil spill in Qatar could disrupt global energy supplies

An oil spill in Qatar could disrupt global energy supplies

It’s been a pretty volatile few years for the global energy market. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the rapid economic recovery following the COVID-19 lockdowns and the Russian invasion of Ukraine led to record-breaking price spikes for natural gas and oil, which last year hit their highest levels since 2008.

Three sites in Qatar host over 20 percent of the world’s LNG exports. But these sites should be monitored particularly closely because if an oil spill occurs, a new study says an even more serious energy crisis is imminent.

[Related: Yemen’s defunct oil tanker could set off a public health crisis.]

The study was published in the journal on Jan. 12 by an international team of researchers nature sustainability shows the location of a “high risk zone” on the peninsula, where an oil spill could shut down liquefied natural gas export plants and coastal desalination plants for several days.

To identify vulnerable offshore areas of the Qatar Peninsula, the team used advanced numerical modeling to correlate data measured over the past five years on maritime data transport, atmospheric circulation, ocean currents, waves and seafloor topographic map data.

They noted that halting activities due to an oil spill in the most vulnerable area would almost certainly disrupt the global gas supply chain. A spill-related shutdown would also result in significant water shortages for one of the world’s most water-stressed countries. Qatar has used desalination to offset its limited groundwater supply for its growing population, but the process consumes a huge amount of energy.

An oil spill on this fuel-rich coast could spell supply chain disaster
A close-up view of Qatar’s desalination and LNG export infrastructure. PHOTO CREDIT: Thomas Anselain, Essam Heggy, Thomas Dobbelaere and Emmanuel Hanert

According to the team, being aware of these vulnerabilities is imperative given that Qatar’s export capacity is expected to increase by about 64 percent over the next five years. As a result, this important port will continue to be a key hotspot in the global energy supply chain. An increased number of tanker incidents in the Gulf is also of concern as these accidents could affect critical coastal infrastructure such as the required desalination plants.

[Related: What a key natural-gas pipeline has to do with the Russia-Ukraine crisis.]

Tankers – one of which can carry enough energy to heat all of London for a week – traversing this area are the main risk for oil spills, not the oil rigs in the northern part of the peninsula. The study finds that Qatar would have just days to contain an oil spill before the slicks would reach the country’s key liquefied natural gas export facilities and desalination plants. Disruptions or a complete shutdown of the desalination plant for even a day would force Qatar to draw on a small aquifer and raise LNG prices.

To avert the worst, the study suggests stepping up remote sensing in the Gulf’s most vulnerable areas with satellite and aerial imagery to extend spill warning times and track how they are evolving.

The study argues that the Middle East’s current vulnerability to environmental hazards is largely underestimated. The threat to water resources from climate change was listed as the top threat facing Arab countries in the latest Arab Barometer Report, a survey of 26,000 people in 12 countries conducted from October 2021 to July 2022.

“Global containment of large oil spills has always been a challenge, but it’s even more difficult in the shallow waters of the Gulf, where any intervention must take into account the complex circulatory flows, harsh operating environment and presence of highly sensitive ecosystems that three million people depend on for drinking water.” said co-author Essam Heggy of the University of Southern California’s Arid Climate and Water Research Center in a statement. “I hope that serious resources will be put into resolving this vulnerability.”

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