Researchers Contend That an Oil Spill from a Qatari Port Could Disrupt the Global Energy Supply

A new paper published in Nature Sustainability by a team of researchers at the University of Louvain, the University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering, and the Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute holds a stark warning that we should all be aware of: An oil spill from a single port in Qatar could cause significant disruption in the global gas supply – as well as an unprecedented water shortage for inhabitants of the Qatari Peninsula.

Qatar: A Global Energy Provider

Qatar’s export capacity is expected to increase by more than 60% over the next few years – and it’s already a huge supplier of liquid natural gas for areas across the globe. The paper’s authors have identified what they call a “high vulnerability zone,” where an oil spill could cause liquified natural gas export facilities and desalination plants on Qatar’s coast to be shut down for multiple days. This could, in turn, cause significant disruption to the global gas supply, cause a serious water shortage to the area, and compromise containment efforts at the same time.

Contextualizing The Risk

The paper suggests that tankers crossing this area of the Persian Gulf are the main risk for oil spills. If a spill were to occur in this area, the researchers contend, Qatar would have only days before the spill could reach the country’s main liquified gas export facility and the main desalination plant. This would mean Qatar would have to rely on its small freshwater reserve, sending liquified natural gas prices skyrocketing across the globe.

The paper offers another way to view the issue in context: The largest liquid natural gas tankers from Qatar provide enough energy to heat the entire city of London, England, for a full week.

What’s the Solution?

The paper’s authors advocate for increased remote sensing using satellite and airborne imaging to provide early warning for spills and to model their evolution if spills do occur. “Energy and water security are deeply intertwined, and both are at risk of being disrupted by a major oil spill,” said co-author Emmanuel Hanert of the University of Louvain. “We identified sea areas in the Gulf where an oil spill would be the most dangerous to desalination and liquified natural gas export facilities. Satellite surveillance should focus on detecting oil spills as early as possible and hence limit their impact.”

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