Route 77 leads to milestone in Qatar's gas exports
RAS LAFFAN // Qatar, the tiny Gulf emirate riding high on its recent victory in an international contest to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, likes its achievements to be large.
The US may have its Route 66 but Qatar has gone 11 better with Route 77.
The fresh tarmac, its blackness still unsullied by salt-laden sand, coats a stretch of motorway formerly known as Ras Laffan Main Avenue.
The road, now called Route 77, starts abruptly about 60km north of Doha, marked by a large road sign in maroon and white, the colours of the Qatari flag. There, the monotony of the salt flats is broken only by the occasional sight of goats or camels foraging among low bushes. At the end of the 13km of the black stuff, however, lie the heavily guarded gates of Ras Laffan Industrial City, the pre-eminent symbol of modern-day Qatar, which is built on gas wealth and whose citizens enjoy the highest per capita income in the world.
Inside those gates, Qatar Petroleum (QP) and its partners - a select group of international oil companies - have built a huge conglomeration of gas-processing and chemicals plants, shipyards, dry docks, storage facilities and export terminals that make up one of the world's largest industrial ports.
"This is the largest man-made harbour in the world," says Capt Feisal Saad, Ras Laffan's harbour master.
This is also where QP's two gas-exporting subsidiaries, Qatargas and RasGas, together with partners including ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell - respectively, the biggest US and European-based international oil companies - have just finished building production facilities for up to 77 million tonnes per year of liquefied natural gas (LNG), more than doubling Qatar's previous LNG output capacity.
Based on consumption data from last year, this means Qatar could supply more than 30 per cent of total Middle East gas demand. Alternatively, in 12 months it could export enough gas to keep Greater London supplied for more than 16 years.
Whether or not Qatar ever utilises its entire capacity, the Ras Laffan development has consolidated its position as the leading exporter of the super-chilled gas that is carried across oceans in specially designed tankers.
"Many years ago, when Qatar set out to achieve the 77 million tonnes per annum target, this landmark was considered an ambitious goal," said Abdullah al Attiyah, the long-serving deputy prime minister and energy minister of Qatar. "Today, Qatar has fulfilled this ambition and has built the flexibility to deliver LNG to any market where there is demand.
"This is the result of many decades of prudent planning and utilisation of global best practices across all our operations, due to which the state of Qatar has also built great credibility within the global energy community."
Mr al Attiyah described the enormous LNG expansion as "the cornerstone of our country's development strategy", from which Qatar planned to diversify into petrochemicals and other industries for which access to large, inexpensive gas supplies would be a distinct advantage.
From the deck of a sturdy blue tug boat, the most prominent features of the Ras Laffan port are six jetty-mounted flare stacks paired with loading arms, some attached to tankers filling up with LNG.
Boulders held together with salt-resistant cement form an outer breakwater high enough to block the tidal waves that occasionally cross the Gulf from earthquake-prone Iran.
But, according to Royal Boskalis Westminster, the Dutch group that built the harbour in co-operation with the dredging firm Jan de Nul, the US$2 billion (Dh7.34bn) development's "sheer size" is best appreciated from space.
The recently completed project has more than quadrupled the capacity of the original harbour, built in 1992.