Libya : How oil can bring back Unity

Summary

The two rival bureaux of Libya’s National Oil Corp., based in Tripoli and Bayda respectively, are squaring off in a dispute that threatens to derail the country’s new unity government before it even takes power. Libya’s government has been split in two since 2014 parliamentary elections, after which the elected House of Representatives was forced to flee Tripoli for the eastern city of Tobruk. It has been fighting with its counterpart, the General National Congress, over oil revenue ever since.

Libya’s National Oil Corp. based in Tripoli (NOC-Tripoli) recently contracted the tanker Nassau Energy to load a cargo of crude oil from the Ras Lanuf oil export terminal, which has been inoperative since December 2014. However, on Jan. 14, the guards at Ras Lanuf, who are loyal to the rival National Oil Corp. in Bayda (NOC-Bayda), turned the ship away citing recent attacks by the Islamic State on the facility. The incident comes less than a month after NOC-Bayda announced that it had signed a memorandum of understanding with the Egyptian General Petroleum Corp. to sell it 2 million barrels of Sarir-Messla crude oil per month. If finalized, the agreement would be the first successful export deal for the Bayda-based oil company, which few countries recognize as legitimate.

Analysis

Managing the rivalry between the two factions of the National Oil Corp. in Tripoli and Bayda will be the first major challenge for the newly formed Government of National Accord, Libya’s U.N.-backed unity government. Either NOC-Tripoli’s attempted loading at Ras Lanuf and NOC-Bayda’s attempted export deal could spark a new standoff between the east and the west, which would mean the mobilization of guards to protect the export terminals. The government will need to find a compromise quickly before the situation escalates. However, this is more easily said than done. Though the unity government may initially succeed in merging the two rival oil companies, specifically by backing NOC-Tripoli and undermining NOC-Bayda to the point of irrelevance, the underlying fragmentation of Libya’s social structure and long-established grievances against Tripoli mean stable exports from Libya’s hydrocarbons sector are a distant prospect.

NOC-Tripoli’s Strategy: Neutrality

Ever since the June 2014 parliamentary elections effectively split the country into rival governments — the internationally-recognized House of Representatives based in the eastern city of Tobruk and the remnants of the General National Congress based in Tripoli — the two sides have been fighting for control over the country’s substantial oil and natural gas revenue.

Initially, the Tobruk government tried to exert control over the three Tripoli-based institutions related to finance: the National Oil Corp., the Libyan Central Bank and the Libyan Investment Authority. It appointed new heads for the entities but had little power to implement its wishes. Instead it eventually opted to create its own rival institutions, even though all three Tripoli-based institutions tried to remain neutral to retain international legitimacy. So far, this has mostly worked. Though the government in Tripoli does exert more control than Tobruk, its writ is limited: The Libyan Central Bank has unilaterally approved or announced the budgets for each of Libya’s institutions. The bank has also rejected the budgets of both rival governments. This stance has allowed NOC-Tripoli to stay at least partially functional amid the political standoff and to yield what little oil and natural gas revenue it can to the central bank’s national system, which pays most civil servants.

Even so, Libya’s oil and natural gas revenue during the recent civil war has been disrupted and there have been long delays in payments, along with other related problems. Since the country’s political problems began at the end of 2014, oil production has stayed below 500,000 barrels per day, and the most recent figures show oil production currently as low as 380,000 barrels per day, over half of which comes from the eastern part of the country.

NOC-Bayda’s Strategy: Circumventing the System

The Tobruk-based government did not try to establish a separate oil company until March 2015, when it had become clear that it could not control the corporate office in Tripoli. Since then, it has sought to undermine NOC-Tripoli by attempting to get foreign companies and tankers to work and register with NOC-Bayda instead. This has included threatening legal action, directly negotiating with international companies and setting up bank accounts abroad to take payments.

With NOC-Bayda, Tobruk has not tried to rebuild a national oil company from the ground up. Instead Bayda acts as the National Oil Corp. with the goal of replacing NOC-Tripoli as the legitimate headquarters of the existing company. In the eyes of Tobruk, it has simply moved the corporate offices across the country. This successor strategy has seen it honor contracts signed prior to March 2015 and reject all contracts that NOC-Tripoli has signed since, the largest of which was an 18-month agreement signed in August 2015 with Glencore. The deal gave Glencore sole rights to the crude exported from the Sarir and Messla oil fields through the eastern Marsa al Hariga export terminal, located on the outskirts of Tobruk. Tobruk and its supporters have also been working to deny the use of ports by NOC-Tripoli.

The signing of Tripoli’s Glencore deal has only made Tobruk more determined to market and export crude oil itself. Not only has it hosted conferences attempting to woo international oil companies, but it has also listed cargoes for sale since the end of October 2015. Companies have been reluctant to do business with the company thus far, but Egypt seems to have stepped in and at least signaled that it is willing, although no final agreement has been signed. (Cairo strongly backs Tobruk military leader Gen. Khalifa Hifter and the Tobruk-based government.) NOC-Bayda claims that it has three additional agreements in place and is negotiating with 40 companies, though most of the companies it has mentioned are small, relatively unknown trading companies based in the Middle East.

The Man Behind the Fight

One of NOC-Bayda’s biggest supporters is the powerful former central commander of the Petroleum Facilities Guard, Ibrahim Jadhran, who has long used his influence at four of Libya’s most important oil export terminals to gain concessions from Tripoli. From August 2013 to April 2014, heblocked the then-unified National Oil Corp. from the major ports in the eastern part of the country and tried to export oil independently of the company. He eventually agreed to reopen the ports, but only after he received concessions from the prime minister at the time, Abdullah al-Thinni, who is now heading the Tobruk parliament. One of al-Thinni’s biggest concessions was to agree to decentralize the National Oil Corp. and move its headquarters from Tripoli to the east. Any success that NOC-Bayda has in independently exporting oil from Libya will help Jadhran accomplish his federalist goal of expanding the National Oil Corp.’s reach into eastern Libya.

Now that NOC-Tripoli is pushing to load oil at the Ras Lanuf terminal, the possibility for conflict between the rival factions of the company is high. Jadhran has already turned away the NOC-Tripoli tanker, citing legitimate security concerns: The terminal was attacked by the Islamic State on Jan. 4, and on Jan. 14 a pipeline leading to it was hit by a blast, likely also the work of the Islamic State. In fact, Jadhran’s cooperation with eastern-based organizations is pragmatic in many ways: He is willing to make concessions to protect against the Islamic State and to counter Hifter, the Tobruk military leader, whom he opposes. Jadhran could eventually cooperate with NOC-Tripoli on oil exports to gain the necessary funds needed to fight the Islamic State until the government is better able to fill this role. However, such cooperation, if it even materializes, would not be enduring, given the incompatibility of Jadhran’s long-term demands for a greater government presence in eastern Libya and western Libya’s demand for strong centralized institutions in Tripoli.

Logistics: Squabbling Over Subsidiaries

Since NOC-Bayda is not trying to build a new company but instead co-opting an existing company, it is working to win the allegiance of the National Oil Corp. subsidiaries and joint ventures that manage operations of Libya’s oil and natural gas fields and infrastructure. These include internationally operated companies, such as Eni’s Mellitah Oil and Gas or Repsol’s Akakus Oil Operations, and others such as Waha Oil Co. or the Arabian Gulf Oil Co. (Agoco), which are National Oil Corp. subsidiaries that operate themselves. (They were formerly joint ventures led by U.S. companies that had to leave because of sanctions, after which the National Oil Corp. allowed the remnants to form their own oil companies.)

Essentially, what NOC-Bayda is trying to do is negotiate directly with the subsidiaries operating in the east, the most important of which is Agoco, which has been producing between 200,000 and 250,000 barrels per day for much of the last year for export at the Marsa al Hariga terminal in Tobruk. However, Agoco has continued to voice its allegiance to NOC-Tripoli.

Still, we have not seen Tobruk move to shut down the port or force the company to export through NOC-Bayda, for several reasons. First, both the local contingent of guards and Agoco know that NOC-Bayda’s capability is limited and that turning their back on Tripoli would likely mean giving up their salaries, which are paid through the central bank. Second, half of the oil that leaves the terminal is refined domestically and dispersed throughout the country. (The part that is exported is bartered for petroleum product imports.) This means that if Tobruk steps in and blocks it, it will likely need to find another way to secure vital refined products for eastern Libya.

Regardless of whether NOC-Bayda is finally able to finalize the agreement with Egypt over the monthly sale of one cargo (or with any other company for that matter), there will be a showdown of sorts in Marsa al Hariga. The agreement would undermine Glencore’s deal and would also mean that either Agoco has flipped sides and negotiated its own sale to Bayda, or that Tobruk will finally try to exert physical control over the local port. We do know that there is some level of negotiation happening between NOC-Bayda and Agoco, but it is likely that the international community will treat the sale as illicit and could interdict it, as it did two years ago when Jadhran tried to export crude oil via the Morning Glory tanker.

The Unity Government

The creation of a unity government — if it gets widespread backing — would help, at least in the interim, solve some of these problems. Right now, the actual functions of NOC-Tripoli (which remain largely intact) and the theoretical functions of NOC-Bayda overlap: They are fighting for the allegiance of the same subsidiaries. This means that in theory, unifying them should be fairly straightforward.

The threat of the Islamic State certainly provides added impetus for both sides of the National Oil Corp. to unite. It is what drove the creation of the U.N.-brokered government in the first place. Still, the underlying fractures that have kept Libyan exports intermittent since the fall of Moammar Gadhafi will remain unresolved, and disputes will persist. The unity government knows that its only real hope for ensuring political and economic stability is to decentralize and relocate some government functions to the eastern city of Benghazi. However, it is also well aware that such a proposal will not be taken well by western Libya.

The problem is that at the moment the unity government does not have widespread backing and is divided over key issues. This means that in both the Tobruk- and Tripoli-based governments there is a substantial bloc that opposes unifying the two factions of the National Oil Corp. The new government will find it challenging to physically locate itself in Tripoli. Once fully functional, the unity government may not manage to become strong enough to make progress in the country. If the rival governments persist and maintain control of large areas of the country, then they will continue to fight for control of Libya’s energy revenue.

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