Libya’s energy sector remains divided between two authorities, the National Oil Corporation (NOC) and the Petroleum Facilities Guard, and three governments namely the House of Representatives in Tobruk, the General National Congress and the Presidential Council in Tripoli. Failure to conduct a fair and expedient election in late December 2021 is expected to prolong division of Libya’s oil wealth between East and West. This would cement the presence of foreign powers and mercenaries in and around Libyan oil and gas installations.
The country’s oil and gas reserves are estimated at approximately 48 billion barrels of crude oil and 52 trillion cubic feet of gas. Libya’s oil production was 1.3 million barrels per day (bpd) on average throughout 2020, with plans for oil production to reach up to 2 million bpd within the next five years.
These plans, however, can prove futile because of militant attacks on oil and gas installations, increased number of leaks due to lack of infrastructure maintenance, and the possibility of renewed months-long blockades on energy facilities. The December closure of Shahara field, Libya’s largest oil field in the southwest part of the country, by militants was translated into temporary reduction of oil production by around 350 thousand bpd. That means overall oil production easily decreased at approximately 700 thousand bpd, thus constituting Libya’s lowest production level within a year period.
In addition, months-old blockades on energy facilities, throughout the last few years, have led to the halt of significant part of exports. According to the central bank in Tripoli, oil and gas revenues for 2020 plummeted to 652 million dollars from around 7 billion dollars in 2019, which is, practically, a drop by 92 percent.
Overall, militant attacks and blockades prevent oil exports and deprive Libya from revenues that could be otherwise funneled to its reconstruction. It is also noteworthy that the under-funding of the NOC due to failure to pass a national budget has starved it of economic resources, preventing upgrades to the aging or damaged oil infrastructure, and limiting oil and gas production.
Foreign Energy Investment Flows
Despite the challenges, foreign investment plans continue unabated. French Total, through its subsidiary Total Energies, foresees the execution of a 2-billion-dollar investment plan to increase the production capacity of the North Gialo and NC-98 oil fields.
Concurrently, Total Energies partners with American ConocoPhilips exploration and production company for the acquisition of American Hess Corporation’s 8.16 percent interest in the six Waha oil concessions located in the Sirte Basin in eastern Libya. The commercial deal will increase the French company’s stake in the concessions to 20,4 percent from the current 16,3 percent, thus solidifying the energy footprint of France in Libya.
On a parallel level, Royal Dutch Shell announced its plans not only to re-develop ageing fields like the block NC-174 in the Murzuq basin but also to develop new fields offshore the Cyrenaica basin and onshore the Ghadames and Sirte basins. Shell’s investment plans signal its re-entry in Libya after a decade’s absence attributed to the 2011 first Libyan civil war.
The attraction of substantial international investment in the energy sector of Libya, however, remains dependent on improved security and a stable and united government that is outcome of elections.
Russia and Turkey at the Forefront of Actions
In the meantime, foreign powers persist in their battle for control over Libya’s energy wealth, with Russia and Turkey being at the forefront of the evolving dominance process. Russian security contractors and Russian-aligned mercenaries are stationed in Libya to protect critical energy assets operated by Russian oil companies like Gazprom and Rosneft. Moscow wants to export Libyan oil to Europe in accordance with the relevant provisions of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed between Russian major Rosneft and NOC that foresees the sale of Libyan crude oil to third markets, and the signing of additional energy deals that will allow Moscow to maintain its position as a leading supplier of energy to Europe.
Moscow also looks eager to get a piece of the reconstruction pie in Libya with the renewal of a 2.6-billion-dollar contract for a railway that will connect the city of Sirte to Benghazi, and with the execution of other infrastructure projects. On top of that, Moscow maintains military interests in Libya and persistently pursues its bid to gain a permanent naval facility on the 1,900-kilometer Libyan coast that will serve as a Russian gate to Africa.
For its part, Turkey looks eager to collect Qaddafi-era debt owed to Turkish businesses, to participate in the 50-billion-dollar of reconstruction contracts, and to establish a Turkey-Libya axis that would disrupt the alignment between Greece, Israel, Cyprus, and Egypt. This was the specific goal of the Turkey-Libya MoU on the demarcation of maritime boundaries, which is nevertheless invalid for two reasons: Firstly, it was not ratified by the Libyan Parliament and, secondly, it was not approved unanimously by members of the Presidential Council in breach of the UN-sponsored Libyan Political Agreement.
Alarming bells have started to ring in western capitals over the alleged close cooperation between Russia and Turkey on the basis that they have practically divided Libya, on the patterns of Syria, into distinct spheres of influence between them. There are worries that Libya is divided along Islamic lines supported by Turkey. Turkish support of Islamic militias with military equipment is allegedly used to damage Libyan critical energy infrastructure. The ultimate Turkish goal is to control a large portion of Libya’s offshore gas, to disrupt the unimpeded flow of energy, and thus control a significant part of Libyan energy reserves.
The Way Out
To prevent a security breakdown and another round of civil conflict that will negatively impact development and production of energy resources in Libya, a new definite elections date must be declared. The UN can serve as valuable vehicle in this direction by ensuring that Libyan presidential and parliamentary elections are held as soon as possible, while enabling the resolution of pending matters that postponed them in the first place. Failure to meet a new elections’ deadline would trigger a constitutional crisis, undermine the legitimacy of the political system, create an opening for domestic spoilers, and provide a pretext for foreign powers to maintain their malign military presence in Libya.
Evidently, time is of essence. But still, there is a window of opportunity for Libya to escape the vicious cycle of instability and uncertainty that prevents the realization of its full energy potential. It is beyond the shadow of a doubt that the international community can play a constructive role to this end.