Libyan crude shortage fuels concern

Analyst sees a way for Saudi Arabia to compensate for the loss of prized "light, sweet" Libyan crude.

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Few doubt the ability of Saudi Arabia to produce adequate quantities of oil to compensate for losses in Libya, but the quality of that crude is in question, analysts say.

"Libyan crude is not easily replicated," David Ernsberger, the global oil director of the commodity information group Platts, told a forum in Abu Dhabi this week. "The big problem is removal of high-quality crudes."

Before the outbreak of armed conflict in Libya, the North African Opec member was a significant exporter of prized "light, sweet crude" to north-west Europe, where most refineries cannot process the Gulf region's stickier, more sulphurous crudes, at least economically.

Most analysts have assumed that with most of its Arab light crude output already committed to long-term customers, the state petroleum company Saudi Aramco would only have heavier crudes available to substitute for Libyan supplies.

Because of that, Mr Ernsberger said, the Libyan conflict is having a much bigger impact on international crude prices than unrest in other Mena states.

North Sea Brent crude, the European benchmark, has recently traded at more than US$115 a barrel, potentially threatening Europe's fragile economic recovery.

Nevertheless, the Saudi Arabian government has promised to supply a custom blend of crude to suit the requirements of European refiners requesting additional feedstock.

Samuel Ciszuk, the senior Middle East energy analyst at IHS Global Insight, suggested how that could be achieved.

As Aramco has prioritised gas development to fuel power generation and drive petrochemicals expansion, Saudi Arabia has substantially increased its output of condensate, a type of ultra-light crude produced from gasfields.

For several months last year, that enabled the kingdom to step up oil output and boost foreign revenues without exceeding its presumed Opec production quota, which excludes condensate.

Naturally low in sulphur, raw condensate is easily "split" into the common petrochemicals feedstock naphtha and a semi-processed crude that yields mostly light oil products such as petrol on further refining.