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Libya’s Lofty Goals Remain But So Do Challenges

After rebounding faster than many thought possible, Libya’s oil and gas sector has set its sights on further expansion with new production goals for this coming March and significant expansion over the next five years. With a plan that includes gradually broadening their exploration efforts, increasing refining capacity and even venturing into unconventional options, including shale, Libya appear poised to finally live up to their energy potential in the region.

Despite such confidence and political will, the North African nation now faces more than its share of challenges standing in the way of those lofty production goals. More than just an additional revenue stream for the country, Libya’s energy output represents the country’s clearest and surest path towards sustainable growth and stability over the coming decade. Currently, Tripoli looks to hydrocarbon revenue for 80 percent of GDP and 97 percent of export earnings, making the sector’s stability and growth all the more vital to Libya’s post-war future.

However, questions about security, shared domestic benefits and confidence among needed foreign partners have cast some doubt about whether the country’s new political leadership have a plan in place to make this happen.

A Quick but Unsure Recovery

With more than 46.4 billion barrels of available crude, Libya is home to Africa’s largest proven oil reserves. Despite the country’s potential, Libya has seen a steady decline in production levels from a 3 million bpd peak in the 1960s. This slowdown was the result of an insufficient infrastructure and political isolation under the leadership of Muammar Gadaffi. Production efforts began to rebound after international sanctions were lifted in 2004, though the government’s handling of the energy sector and underperforming efforts created a cautious atmosphere among foreign firms. The collapse of the Gadaffi government amid widespread violence last year dealt another blow to production efforts last year, but quick action on the part of the transitional government helped output rebound ahead of analysts’ predictions, reaching 1.6 million bpd this month. While still far short of 1960s’ highs, the recovery has offered some confidence, setting up a production goal of 1.72 million bpd by late March and 2.2 million by 2017.

Libya has also been able to increase natural gas output, producing 2.5 billion cubic meters (bcm) a day as of this month, with plans to increase to 3 bcm by the end of the year.

Members of the country’s National Oil Corporation (NOC) have suggested that the country’s’ short-term goals can be met with only existing projects, moving beyond that amount will require expanding both up and downstream efforts in the coming months.  This will include new production licenses within the next year, according to Reuters, as well as following up on projects that were delayed as a result of the conflict. After signing a $900 million exploration agreement in 2009, BP announced their intent to return to Libya with both on and offshore projects planned.

Further, expansion efforts will include improvements to the country’s refining capacity, which now stands at 378,000 bpd, across five facilities, according to a recent European Commission report. The growth of the country’s refining capacity will be especially important moving forward to address export demands, as well as domestic needs. Libya currently relies on imports for three-quarters of its gasoline needs.

However, the NOC and the country’s new political leadership must first deal with a series of domestic challenges standing in their way, most stemming from the violent conflict that led to the collapse of the Gadaffi government.

In addition to dealing with damage to the country’s energy infrastructure during the civil war, Libya has also been plagued by uncertainty about the country’s security situation. While some companies, including Italy’s Eni and Spain’s Repsol, made quick returns after the war ended, others have remained cautious, with many of the militias that rose up during the conflict still active and armed.

This situation has become more pressing as some of these groups have begun using up and downstream faculties as tools of protests. Recently, a group demanding medical care and compensation for their role in the war halted production at the Zawiya Refinery for three days in protest, costing the country an estimated $30 million in lost revenue, according to Reuters. In addition to lost earnings, the protest spurred action among local workers who threatened protests of their own to demand better security at the facility. So far, Tripoli have been able to avoid such protests with a pledge to hear out workers’ concerns, though no long term solutions have been put on the table. This lack of clarity has been made worse by an ongoing struggle for political influence between the traditional central government in Tripoli and the unofficial capital of the oil-rich east, Benghazi.

A Stable Setting for Foreign Investment

Whatever solution is finally applied to the country’s security situation, it will need to come quick to ensure needed international investors. This is especially true with the country’s current and anticipated energy infrastructure. In addition to boosting transport lines, Libya will need significant investment in unconventional technology if it hopes to reach the estimated 290 trillion cubic meters of shale gas the U.S. Energy Information Administration believes the country holds.

While Libya has not traditionally relied on gas production, the country’s shale potential has forced a reevaluation of its role in the energy sector and the country’s ability to move beyond pre-conflict production levels, NOC Chairman Nuri Berruien told Bloomberg. Reaching those reserves will require costly early investment and appeals to foreign firms with more direct experience with hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’ – the process necessary to extract deep-set shale deposits.

Image: The Wall Street Journal

Originally Posted in Newsbase, Afroil Monitor

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