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French Version

Mideast natural-gas market set to boom as demand for alternative energy sources grows

The natural-gas market, still in its early years, is looking to secure a place in the global energy-distribution scheme in the face of major technical challenges and high geopolitical stakes. About seven-tenths of the world's natural-gas reserves are concentrated in two regions, the Middle East and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the loose association of 12 of the one-time constituent republics of the former Soviet Union.

Russia alone has nearly 27 percent of total world reserves, Iran 15 percent and the Gulf state of Qatar 14 percent, a similar pattern of distribution to that of world oil reserves.

Gas reserves are vast, estimated to easily be able to meet demand at a growth rate of 2 to 3 percent annually for many decades to come, and likely to rise to 26-27 percent of primary energy demand by 2020.

Gas prices, indexed to those of oil, have continued on a rising spiral in recent years and experts say they will continue bullish for a while yet. But the natural-gas market, despite its environmental advantages, has so far reached nothing like the state of maturity of oil, having been relatively neglected for a long time.

Transportation proved a big obstacle, preventing gas being much beyond its immediate production area. During the 1960s and 1970s, oil prospectors regularly had to block up unused gas wells, one specialist recalled.

Even today, gas pipelines and methane terminals are so costly to set up that gas remains something of a privilege for richer countries.

"It's often said there is not one world market for natural gas, but three regional markets, Europe, North America and Asia," said Francis Perrin, editor of a specialist magazine Le petrole et le gaz arabes.

"It's less true today than a few years ago due mainly to a reduction in costs of liquefied natural gas (transported by boat). But the potential to lower costs further has certainly not been exhausted," Perrin suggested.

Indeed, changes are happening. Europe, feeling the effects of the Russian-Ukrainian pricing row at the start of the year and recent supply difficulties experienced by Britain - once a gas exporter, - is following developments keenly.

For Europe has now entered a phase of decline in natural-gas production, with only Norway able to continue raising output, and has lately begun addressing the need for a new gas strategy.

Growing dependence is forcing the Europeans into massive investment required for new ports and pipelines, said Marie-Francoise Chabrelie, secretary general of the French gas sector association Cedigaz.

Then there's the need to respond to an all-out challenge posed by the Russian natural gas major Gazprom, which is strengthening links with gas producer Algeria and planning to export liquefied natural gas to North America from northern Russia, not to speak of the two gas pipelines it plans to lay to China.

"The map showing the place of gas around the world has been reshaped," said Moncef Kaabi, an analyst with Ixis Corporate and Investment Bank.

"Russia is assuming a major role in creating external growth to distribute gas to Europe and Asia."

The huge U.S. market has great appeal, says Francis Perrin. It's there that prices are highest and could prove a particular attraction to exporters - to Europe's disadvantage.

Beirut,03 27 2006
The Daily Star
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