Short and long term strategies

I have been at the first Doha Carbon and Energy Forum this week, organized by Qatar Petroleum and the Qatar Foundation with support from ExxonMobil. The event focused on steps that could be taken in Qatar and the region to begin to address the issue of carbon emissions. Sessions on carbon capture and storage, energy efficiency and alternative energy each produced a set of proposals to take forward.

There is no doubt that the Gulf region is very aware of the issue of climate change and its implications, particularly the potential economic impact going forward as the world looks to alternative energy sources. In Qatar there is also a feeling of optimism because of the very substantial natural gas reserves there. But there is also a realization that a very well thought through strategic approach will be required to capitalize on the long term value of the resource in an increasingly carbon constrained world.

In the short to medium term natural gas offers a real opportunity for nations to quickly get to grips with emissions targets and begin to see reductions within the economy. This is showing up very clearly in the USA, where rapidly increasing shale-gas production, in combination with tougher emission standards in the coal sector (other than CO2 that is)  is pushing the USA towards its 17% Copenhagen Accord target even without the benefit of federal carbon emissions legislation. A quick “back of the envelope” calculation shows that if the USA replaces 120 GW of coal fired power generating capacity (about a third of the fleet) with natural gas, in combination with the tough new laws on vehicle efficiency, it can, at least on paper, meet its 2020 target. There are a few ifs and buts here of course, with the key ones being as follows;

  • The background to the coal to gas switch is discussed in a previous posting, “A Focus on the USA – Coal and Natural Gas”.
  • On-road vehicle efficiency needs to improve by about 10 mpg at constant miles driven. In 2005 average on-road vehicle efficiency remained around 20 mpg, so that means about 30 mpg by 2020. In theory this is possible given vehicle turnover and the new mileage standards.
  • Other emissions across the economy need to remain the same – e.g. emissions from industry and homes.

The early evidence is that the change is already underway in the power sector, which has seen a sharp drop in CO2 intensity over the last three years.

Such a strategy pays off handsomely in the medium term and offers natural gas the position as a transition fuel to a low carbon economy. But this is not sustainable in the longer term as emission reduction targets become much tougher. This is why the USA, for example, needs emissions legislation now, not so much for the period up to 2020 which is now largely set, but for the energy mix in the decades afterwards which will be set by decisions made in the next 5-10 years.

Similarly, for a country such as Qatar with a large natural gas resource base, carbon constraints around the world offer opportunity now, but will be challenging later on. The forum in Doha recognized this and proposed an increased focus on carbon capture and storage and the role that it could play in allowing natural gas to remain a key part of the global energy mix for much of this century – in other words to be as much a destination fuel as it is a transition fuel. The development of a Gulf region CCS Technology Platform with a focus on CCS+NG demonstration plants was tabled as a potential way forward.