An oil spill in Qatar could disrupt the world’s energy supply

An oil spill in Qatar could disrupt the world’s energy supply

It’s been quite a volatile couple of years for the global energy market. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the economy recovered rapidly after the COVID-19 lockdowns and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine led to record spikes in the price of natural gas and oil prices reached their highest level since 2008 last year.

Three sites in Qatar are home to more than 20 percent of the world’s liquefied natural gas exports. But these sites need to be monitored especially closely, because if an oil spill were to occur, an even more serious energy crisis would be imminent, according to a new study.

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

The study published on January 12 by an international team of researchers in the journal Nature Sustainability points to the location of a “high vulnerability zone” on the peninsula where an oil spill could shut down liquefied natural gas export facilities and desalination plants on the coast for several days.

To identify vulnerable offshore areas off 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 seabed topographic map data.

They found that shutting down activity due to an oil spill in the most vulnerable area would almost certainly disrupt the global gas supply chain. A spill-induced shutdown would also cause significant water shortages in one of the world’s countries most at risk of water scarcity. Qatar has used desalination to balance its limited supply of groundwater for its growing population, but the process consumes a great deal of energy..

An oil spill on this fuel-rich coast could be a supply chain catastrophe
A close-up of the desalination and liquefied natural gas export infrastructure in Qatar. CREDIT: Thomas Anselain, Essam Heggy, Thomas Dobbelaere and Emmanuel Hanert

According to the team, awareness of this vulnerability is imperative, especially as Qatar’s export capacity is expected to increase by approximately 64 percent over the next five years. Therefore, this key port will continue to be a crucial access point in the global energy supply chain. An increased number of tanker incidents in the Gulf is also cause for concern, as these accidents could affect critical coastal infrastructure, such as necessary desalination plants.

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

Tankers, one of which can carry enough power to heat all of London for a week, crossing this area are the main oil spill risks, not oil rigs on the northern part of the peninsula. The study finds that Qatar would only have a few days to contain an oil spill before the slicks reached the country’s main liquefied gas export facility and desalination plant. Disruptions or the complete closure of the desalination plant for just one day would force Qatar to rely on a small groundwater reserve and increase prices for liquefied natural gas.

To prevent the worst from happening, the study suggests increasing remote sensing in the most vulnerable areas of the Gulf with satellite and aerial imagery to increase warning times for spills and track how they evolve.

The study argues that the current vulnerability to environmental hazards in the Middle East is greatly underestimated. Threats to water resources due to climate change were listed as the biggest threat to Arab countries in the most recent Arab Barometer Report, a survey of 26,000 people in 12 countries conducted between October 2021 and July 2022.

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

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