Intense news flow over energy resources in international relations calls for upgrade of risk methodologies

Senegal, Mauritania - Feb 25 2019

Intense news flow over energy resources in international relations calls for upgrade of risk methodologies

With the current international relations news flow particularly rich, and in view of the growing tensions in several regions of the world, we identify two cases that we think should be compared. On the one hand, the region of the Levant, which, while the Syrian domestic situation seems to be calming, is now the scene of open tensions amongst countries with a seafront on the Mediterranean. The point of contention is clear: the claim of disputed areas in the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of Cyprus, Turkey, Lebanon and Israel, which are estimated to harbour significant potential hydrocarbon resources following the major gas discoveries in Egyptian and Israeli waters at the end of the 2000s. On the other hand, the West Africa region, with Senegal and Mauritania as the key stakeholders. One of the largest hydrocarbon discoveries in the world in the last five years is located along the border between the two countries' maritime domains. A very recently signed agreement (February 9, 2018), formalizes the framework for the joint exploitation of these resources.

These two regional cases have obvious common features: countries characterized until recently by the weakness or absence of domestic (fossil) energy resources and a consequent significant dependence on international trade for their energy supply; the sovereign decision to exploit fossil energy resources, regardless of any national or supranational climate policy considerations; an opening to international investments. But it is also clear that two prime factors shape two diametrically opposed situations in terms of context and perspectives. The first factor relates to historical legacies. While the historical relationship between Mauritania and Senegal has not led to any insurmountable litigation, the East of the Mediterranean remains defined by multi-century legacies, singularly exacerbated by the advent of the nation-state in the twentieth century, synonyms of unresolved disputes of different natures, territorial, political, confessional. The second factor relates to the degree of integration, voluntary or coerced, in global strategic issues. From this point of view, the Levant is a paroxysmal case: rivalry for the regional leadership between Saudi Arabia and Iran with the issue of influence over the entire Muslim world, permanence of US and British influences, regional and extra-regional alliance games, concentration of most of the world's oil resources, issues of geographical continuity of land and maritime trade routes between Europe and Asia. In comparison, Mauritania and Senegal appear preserved and particularly less exposed to the risk of being involved in conflicts contrary to their interests.

The contrast between these two cases appears even more compelling considering the developments over the past few days. Senegal and Mauritania have agreed on an initial 50/50 split of revenues from gas exploitation with a subsequent adjustment mechanism based on technical operating data that will specify the respective shares of each country in total production. In addition, converging positive signs suggest that the authorities of both countries are reviewing their development strategy to integrate the opportunities and risks, but also the temporality, of their new status of hydrocarbon-producing or, possibly, hydrocarbon-exporting countries. Precisely at the same time, in the Mediterranean, Turkey has crossed a threshold in the strategy of intimidation towards the Cypriot authorities and their resource exploration initiatives by sending its navy to block the operations of the ship of one of the main geophysical studies and offshore drilling companies (SAIPEM). A few weeks earlier, at the beginning of January 2018, the tone between Lebanon and Israel deteriorated following Lebanon’s allocation of an exploration license, in a zone of the maritime boundary challenged by both countries, to a consortium consisting of the companies Novatek, TOTAL, and ENI.

From our perspective of innovative analysis of sovereign risks, these facts support us both in substance and in method. On substance: first, international relations are marked by a general rise in tensions over access to energy resources, in complete contradiction with the dominant, naive prediction that hydrocarbon resources will exceed future needs; second, the positive signals from Senegal and Mauritania contradict the simplistic argument of “resource curse” so often linked to fossil resource exploitation. A cooperative, non-predatory framework for the exploitation of these resources can be a powerful lever for innovative economic development strategies. On the method, the analysis of sovereign risks and, particularly, the integration of energy risks, shall not be limited to a series of quantitative indicators and must integrate factors related to national, regional and global historical contexts.

Olivier Rech, Head of Energy-Climate Research

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