Salma El Wardany & Hatem Mohareb
A fresh wave of protests at Libyan oilfields and ports is threatening to derail months of stability in the OPEC member’s crude production and exports.
Output may drop by as much as 800,000 barrels a day in the coming days because of the disruptions, according to a Libyan official. While protests due to domestic unrest have beset the country’s oil operations for much of the last decade, a power struggle between its oil minister and the head of the state-run National Oil Corp. has helped to fuel the latest conflict.
At the eastern ports of Ras Lanuf and Es Sider demonstrators have halted operations and blocked tankers from loading, according to people familiar with the matter who asked not to be identified because they aren’t authorized to speak publicly.
Officials at the NOC didn’t respond to calls seeking comment.
Although Libya has Africa’s largest crude reserves, production has been erratic since the overthrow of former leader Moammar Qaddafi in 2011. A truce last year in the country’s long-running civil war, combined with the formation of a unity government, has helped to stabilize output in recent months at almost 1.2 million barrels a day.
Protesters said over the weekend that they would halt exports at eastern ports. At Es Sider, the country’s biggest for exporting crude, demonstrators calling for the dismissal of NOC Chairman Mustafa Sanalla took over the control room and have prevented the Suezmax tanker Yannis P. from loading, the people said. At Ras Lanuf, the disruptions have stopped the tanker Kriti Bastion from loading.
Separate protests by students and recent graduates demanding jobs have erupted at the key Hariga port, which exports about 250,000 barrels a day of Sarir and Mesla crude. The Suezmax tanker Mikela P. is due to reach Hariga on Sept. 9, vessel-tracking data compiled by Bloomberg show.
Groups of demonstrators have also threatened to stop production at oilfields including Sharara, the country’s largest, and others such as Nafoora in the east.
The unrest comes after oil minister Mohamed Oun asked the government to dismiss Sanalla and reshuffle the NOC’s board. The jostling follows a decade of conflict and tension between rival governments that eased after the formation of a unity authority and speaks to the realities of politics in Libya, where even the new unity government struggles to push through its policies.
Oun was appointed to his post in March, making him the first oil minister since 2014. Sanalla has been the NOC’s head since 2014 — holding a job that allowed him to effectively run the energy sector, sign agreements with international oil companies and represent Libya at meetings of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.
Libya relies on oil sales for nearly all its foreign revenue. A disruption in the operations of the NOC, which Sanalla has sought to keep above the political fray, would be devastating for efforts to rebuild the North African nation.
Sanalla resisted the oil minister’s efforts to remove him, saying in an interview that the official lacked the authority to take such a step. Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah this week held a meeting with both, effectively keeping the NOC chief in his post and urging “wisdom” to maintain the stability of the sector.
Dbeibah is leading the country through a transitional period until elections on Dec. 24. If the vote happens peacefully, it could cap a United Nations-led process to reconcile rivals and formally end hostilities. Interruption to oil production and divisions inside the sector could derail the relative peace in the nation.
On Wednesday, the premier told the parliament that the NOC board may be reconstituted in the next cabinet meeting, adding that Sanalla and Oun will eventually work out their differences.