Rising demand, an expanding product range and innovative new applications for gas-to-liquids (GTL) products should help Qatar maintain growth in its GTL industry, bucking declines in conventional hydrocarbons prices.
While attracting a price premium in comparison with crude oil-derived equivalents, GTL products are proving to be a popular alternative in the market thanks to their performance benefits, chemical purity and environmentally friendly properties.
However, increasing competition has the potential to erode some of Qatar’s GTL market share over the longer term.
Qatar has carved out a niche as the global leader in the GTL industry, creating a range of liquid fuels from natural gas, which is converted into longer-chain, highly paraffinic oil products. Finished products include diesel, kerosene, lubricant base oil, and inputs for petrochemical and detergent production.
GTL products are odourless and free from sulphur and other impurities commonly found in crude oil-based alternatives. They are also thinner, which helps to reduce friction and prevent contaminant build-up and wear on machinery.
Qatar has two major GTL facilities with a combined capacity of more than 170,000 barrels per day (bpd). One of the plants, ORYX GTL, uses low-temperature processing technology developed by South Africa-based energy and chemicals company Sasol, and operates as a joint venture with Qatar Petroleum.
Qatar’s other facility, Pearl GTL, uses Shell proprietary technology and ranks as the world’s largest GTL plant, producing 140,000 bpd, or more than 80% of the country’s total GTL output.
According to Rob Sherwin, general manager of corporate affairs and deputy country chairman for Shell Qatar, 2016 will be the second consecutive year when planned routine maintenance activities in the first half of the year will see Pearl GTL’s production halved for a period of time.
A solid performance by Qatar’s manufacturing sector in the third quarter of 2015 underscored GTL’s rising contribution to the broader economy.
Real gross value added in the sector was up 4.3% quarter-on-quarter (q-o-q), driven in large part by GTL production, according to data from the Ministry of Development Planning and Statistics, compared to 2.8% q-o-q growth in the broader economy.
While GTL’s nominal contribution will decline this year on weaker energy prices and the partial shutdown at Pearl GTL, both demand and GTL’s value proposition remain strong, according to Sherwin.
“GTL products have the benefit of being sold into a global market that is continually growing,” he told OBG.
Phinda Vilakazi, president of Sasol GTL ventures, managing operations in Qatar, Nigeria and Uzbekistan, agreed that demand for GTL products was unlikely to be greatly affected by market turbulence.
“In the applications where it is used, GTL has a proven benefit profile in terms of environmental impact and quality,” he told OBG. “We don’t foresee the Qatari GTL market at current production levels being impacted significantly by wider market forces.”
Despite its demonstrated resilience, Qatar’s GTL industry will likely face rising competition in the years to come from new producers that are keen to tap into growing global demand.
In late December Saudi Aramco announced plans to develop a major gas industrial complex at Jazan, worth a reported $2.1bn, which will incorporate a GTL component into its scheduled opening in 2017.
Elsewhere, a GTL plant in Nigeria is nearing full production, and two smaller-scale facilities are set to be commissioned in the US later this year. Other GTL projects are also being explored in Mozambique and Uzbekistan.
In the meantime, producers are gearing up to accommodate Iran’s return to the international energy market. Iran’s leaders are actively seeking foreign investment in its dormant oil and gas industry, in both the up- and downstream segments, and the country reportedly has plans to construct a pilot GTL plant on Qeshm Island. The facility is expected to come on-line in 2018, according to local media reports, with initial output of 3000 bpd.
While initial installed production will be a fraction of Qatar’s GTL output, Iran has the potential to expand its own capacity – and, like its Gulf neighbour, has ample feedstock to supply the sector.
Nonetheless, Qatar is expected to continue to benefit from its established dominance in the global market, having already made extensive investment in the capital-intensive development stage, which should strengthen its position as a supplier against a backdrop of rising demand for premium GTL products.