Why plugging Lebanon's power deficit is also an issue for regional gas supply

Egypt, which has looked to position itself as a regional hub for gas, may struggle to sustain its own output

People gather by Beirut's seaside corniche, Lebanon. The country has previously unsuccessfully attempted to explore for hydrocarbons in its territorial waters. REUTERS
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A trans-regional effort to help Lebanon meet its power requirements by plugging the country to an existing gas supply grid is a viable short-term solution, depending on the sustainable production of the fuel in Egypt.

Energy-deficient Lebanon, which relies primarily on fuel oil and gasoil to power its electricity grid, is increasingly looking to gas as an alternative.

However, even though Lebanon straddles the gas-rich Eastern Mediterranean, access to uninterrupted supplies of the fuel, seen as a cleaner, transitional source in the Middle East, may prove a challenge.

The country is keen to tap supplies from the 1,200-kilometre Arab Gas Pipeline, which supplies Egyptian gas through Jordan to Syria.

"It's feasible midterm, but in the longer term it depends on the gas balance in Egypt," said Siamak Adibi, principal consultant and head of Middle East Gas at London-based consultancy Facts Global Energy.

The race for regional gas accelerated after Egypt discovered the giant Zohr gasfield through Italian company Eni in 2015. However, subsequent discoveries in the region have not been quite as prolific.

"There are ageing fields, facing fast decline and relatively new developments like the West Nile Delta Project," said Mr Adibi.

Egypt, which has sought to position itself as a regional hub for liquefied natural gas, may struggle to sustain its own production should Lebanon place greater demands on its supply.

Besides exporting lucrative LNG to international markets, Egypt also supplies gas to neighbouring Jordan via pipeline as well as meeting its own domestic requirements.

Egypt is the second-biggest producer of gas in North Africa after Algeria and accounts for around 1.1 per cent of the world's proven reserves, according to the BP Statistical Review of Energy 2021.

Consumption of gas in the Arab world's most populous country grew at a rate of 3.7 per cent between 2009 and 2019.

The difference between the production and consumption of gas in the country continues to narrow as domestic demand for power increases.

Egypt produced 58.5 billion cubic metres of gas in 2020, with consumption trailing close at 57.8 billion cubic metres.

Egypt will look to prioritise domestic supply, as power outages have previously proven to be politically sensitive. The country can be a sustainable supplier to Lebanon through the Arab Gas Pipeline if it replenishes its own supplies through imports from other producers in the Eastern Mediterranean.

"They need to have more imports, via the existing infrastructure from Israel or even new infrastructure like another offshore pipeline connecting Israel to Arish in Egypt or even Cypriot gas," said Mr Adibi.

Arish, located in the Sinai peninsula, is the origin of the Arab Gas Pipeline.

In the Levant basin, Cypriot deepwater gasfield Aphrodite is closely linked with Israel's massive Leviathan field, which supplies fuel to Egypt.

A meeting on Wednesday in Amman of energy ministers from Lebanon, Egypt, Syria and Jordan agreed on a road map to provide gas to Beirut.

The four countries will examine "the readiness of the infrastructure", which has been subject to various sabotage attempts since its inception in 2003.

However, the rehabilitation of the pipeline may also prove a challenge.

Lebanon's Ksara electric power transmission substation, which is connected to Damascus, could receive electricity from Jordan through Syria, said Jessica Obeid, an independent energy policy consultant and non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute.

Damages sustained during the Syrian conflict would need reinforcements that can be achieved "in the short-term," she added.

A commercial agreement, if there is no serious damage to the pipeline network could happen as soon as three to six months, according to FGE's Mr Adibi.

Both Syria and Jordan will expect payment, either in kind or cash, for transferring the gas to Lebanon, said Syrian economist Samir Aita.

"Syria has weak financial means, especially in term of hard currencies," he said.

"It may use the multilateral agreement to refurbish the installations and get gas or electricity as its payment for the passage," he added.

However, sanctions imposed by the US on the Syrian regime could prove to be a stumbling block in the way of greater interconnection of the Lebanese and Syrian supply grids.

"It's going to be a very tough decision for the US because it's a big, big step back from the foreign policy of the past 10 years and especially when it comes to the Biden administration whose view is very close to the Obama administration, which imposed sanctions on Syria," said Homayoun Falakshahi, an oil and gas equity analyst at Kpler.

Private businessmen aligned with Lebanon's Iran-backed Hezbollah group are importing fuel oil from Tehran to help meet the country's immediate power needs, a move that is also likely to come under the purview of US sanctions.

However, a regional deal to import gas from Egypt through the Arab Gas Pipeline may prove the lesser of two evils for the US and its ally, Israel.

"I think Israel would rather have that kind of deal become true rather than Iran supplying products directly. I think that looks like it could be possible," said Mr Falakshahi.

For now, Lebanon, which has previously unsuccessfully attempted to explore for hydrocarbons in its territorial waters and to import LNG through floating storage regasification units, will continue to depend on regional allies.

"Egyptian pipeline gas can be supplied at $5 to $6 per million btu [British thermal unit] which is a friendly price for Lebanon, roughly $35 per barrel, fuel equivalent. It's an attractive price," said Mr Adibi.

Updated: September 09, 2021, 4:30 AM