oil spill

Single oil spill near key Qatari port could devastate global energy supplies

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Researchers say they have found a “high vulnerability zone” where just one oil spill could cause major disruption in the global supply chain for liquified natural gas (LNG).

More than 20 per cent of global LNG exports originate from a single port in Qatar. A major spill could cause the shutdown of export facilities and desalination plants on the coast for several days. 

The new paper is from a joint group of researchers at the University of Louvain, the University of Southern California (USC) Viterbi School of Engineering, and the Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute.

In the presence of an oil spill, tankers cannot navigate through thick oil slicks in order to continue exports abroad. Qatar’s desalination plants, which rely on the intake of seawater, would also not be able to perform normal operations with a heavily polluted water source.

The researchers believe that such a shutdown could cause significant disruption in the global gas supply and cause an unprecedented water shortage for inhabitants of the Qatari Peninsula.

Qatar’s export capacity is expected to increase by approximately 64 per cent in the next five years, which will ensure that this key port will continue to be a crucial hotspot for the global energy supply chain, the researchers said.

They added that the increasing number of tanker accidents in the Gulf adds “a level of concern”, particularly with regards to how such accidents could impact critical coastal infrastructures that export fossil fuels globally.

The paper uses numerical modelling to corollate maritime data transports, atmospheric circulation, ocean currents, waves, and seafloor topographic map data acquired over a period of five years.

Using this data, they located specific offshore areas of the Qatar Peninsula that are vulnerable to oil spills, and also assessed potential disruptions to the global LNG supply.

The study suggests that tankers crossing this area are the principal risks for oil spills and not the numerous oil rigs in the northern part of the Peninsula. If a spill occurred, Qatar would have just a few days to contain it before it reaches the country’s main LNG export facility and desalination plant.

Such an event could potentially cause disruptions or even a total shutdown of the desalination plants, pushing the nation to rely on its small freshwater reserve and causing soaring LNG prices.

The researchers said that increased remote sensing using satellite and airborne images in the Gulf’s most vulnerable areas could be used to provide early warning for spills and better model their evolution.

The USC’s Essam Heggy, co-author of the paper, said: “Global containment of major oil spills has always been challenging, but it is even harder in the shallow water of the Gulf where any intervention has to account for the complex circulation currents, a harsh operational environment, and the presence of highly-sensitive ecosystems on which three million humans rely for drinking water.”

Co-author Emmanuel Hanert of the University of Louvain stated: “Oil spill vulnerability in the Gulf could exacerbate both the global energy crisis and the local water crisis in Gulf countries.

“Energy and water security are deeply intertwined and both are at risk of being disrupted by a major oil spill. We identified sea areas in the Gulf where an oil spill would be the most dangerous to desalination and LNG export facilities. Satellite surveillance should focus on detecting oil spills as early as possible and hence limit their impact.”

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