×

Qatar fight finally spills into global energy market

  • Two LNG shipments, believed to be U.K. bound, changed course abruptly, according to shipping data firm Kpler.
  • U.K. natural gas futures spiked on the reports, raising speculation that there could be further disruptions.

Two Qatari LNG shipments, believed to be U.K.-bound, abruptly changed direction in the Gulf of Aden Thursday, raising speculation that the row between Qatar and its Mideast neighbors will spill more broadly into the global gas market.

U.K. natural gas futures spiked nearly 4 percent as the reports began to circulate. Qatar is the world's largest exporter of liquefied natural gas, and so far the dispute between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt has had little impact in energy markets. The two Qatar shipments were believed to have been headed for Britain's South Hook terminal, partly owned by Qatar Petroleum.

According to Kpler, the tanker Al Mafyar, carrying 262,000 cubic meters of LNG, was no longer heading toward the Suez Canal, and its destination was unknown. Kpler, a shipping intelligence firm, said the second tanker, Zarga, with the same capacity, made a U-turn and headed back in the same direction from where it came.

The report was surprising and raised questions about whether Qatar vessels were able to move through the Egyptian-controlled Suez Canal. About 7 percent of seaborne oil and 13 percent of the world's LNG is transited through the Suez, according to RBC's Helima Croft.

Croft said analysts believe that the Egyptian-controlled Suez is operating normally. If that were to change, "That would be a massive escalation. There's a huge amount of cargo that goes through Suez. If they started blocking shipments from one country, it would go to the sanctity of this as a reliable transit point," said Croft, global head of commodities strategy.

U.S. natural gas futures also were higher Thursday, despite a larger-than-expected increase in supply last week. Natural gas futures were up 0.2 percent at $3.02 per million British thermal units.

"Our market seems to be getting some support from this situation, even though we're obviously not a big exporter of LNG," said John Kilduff of Again Capital. "It does seem to be a rally in sympathy of what's going on in that market and in Europe.

"It only highlights a real bright spot for U.S. natural gas producers as we ramp up our export capacity," Kilduff said. "U.S. shale producers of natural gas are getting ready to do to the global gas market what U.S. shale oil producers have done to OPEC."

Meanwhile, oil prices have not been affected by the situation. "Qatar is a big player in LNG but a small player in crude oil, if you exclude their ownership stake in Rosneft," said Kilduff.

About 60 percent of Qatar's LNG exports go to Asia, and those shipments do not go through the Suez Canal, according to RBC.

Separately, Reuters reported that Royal Dutch Shell altered its shipments of LNG, sending a U.S. cargo ship to supply the Dubai Supply Authority instead of the usual Qatar-sourced shipment. Reuters also reported that the Qatari fleet of LNG vessels anchored off the UAE's Fujairah port prior to the diplomatic rift have moved out. They are currently offshore at Qatar's Ras Laffan facility, and the number of tankers anchored there has risen to 17 from seven since Monday, according to Reuters.

Several Saudi-led Arab states abruptly cut off ties to tiny Qatar earlier this week. The fight has become a proxy for states split by their sympathies for or against Iran. Turkey, Russia and Iran have lined up behind Qatar, and Turkey's parliament has authorized 3,000 troops to Qatar.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE have banned Qatari planes from their airspace, so Turkey and Iran are critical supporters for Qatar, which is having a hard time importing food and other necessities. Saudi Arabia has issued demands of Qatar, including ending relations with Iran, breaking all ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and expelling all members of Hamas, according to an Al Jazeera report. It also demands Qatar shut down broadcaster Al Jazeera, which came under cyber attack Thursday.

The catalyst for the rift with Qatar was an alleged statement by Qatar's emir that criticized Saudi Arabia and President Donald Trump, who recently visited Saudi Arabia in his first foreign trip, agreeing to new military contracts and a broader economic relationship. Trump tweeted his support for the action earlier this week, but the U.S., meanwhile, has 10,000 troops at a major airfield in Qatar.

"We've had very strained relations between Saudi and Qatar, but this sparks an absolute new low in relations," said Croft. "Literally, when they're having a hard time securing food shipments, this is a dire crisis right now. I strain to see an easy off-ramp."

Watch: Oil likely to stay in the mid-$40s