The fine print of Morocco's gas discovery: Premature optimism or national victory?

THE MEDINA, CHEFCHAOUEN, RIF REGION, MOROCCO - 2012/12/15: Woman in a djellaba passing next to a Gas delivery donkey. (Photo by Raquel Maria Carbonell Pagola/LightRocket via Getty Images)
4 min read
19 January, 2022
In-depth: Morocco has announced two major gas discoveries, heralding the country's escape from dependence on foreign supplies. However, experts argue that the patriotic campaign promoting them could be premature.

The British Morocco-based energy company Chariot announced on 10 January a "significant" discovery of gas in the northern city of Larache that may end the country’s long-standing lack of natural gas.

In a press release, Chariot Ltd. confirmed that "preliminary interpretation of the data confirms the presence of significant gas accumulations in the appraisal and exploration targets of the Anchois-2 well, with a calculated net gas layer of more than 100m, compared to the layer of gas from the previous year".

Meanwhile, a Moroccan energy expert who spoke to The New Arab on condition of anonymity due to his "sensitive position," says it’s too soon to hail Chariot’s discovery as Morocco’s solution to the closure of the Maghreb–Europe Gas Pipeline.

"We need 3 years or more of drilling, and we may end up with unusable natural gas, so it's too early to assume from preliminary research that Morocco has found a solution to the gas issue"

With less than 100 million cubic meters of national gas production per year, the Kingdom has been mainly dependent on Algerian natural gas to meet its needs, which will reach 1.1 million cubic meters in 2025.

Thanks to its geographic privilege, Morocco benefited from a 700 million cube of natural gas from the Maghreb–Europe Gas Pipeline (GME), which linked the Hassi R'Mel gas field in Algeria with Cordoba in Andalusia, Spain, through Morocco.

However, Moroccan-Algerian bad blood drove Algeria’s president Abdel Majid Tebboun to end the GME deal despite Spain's endeavour to save the 26-year-old gas source for Morocco, Portugal, and Spain.

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While Madrid acknowledged the economic impact of the pipeline's closure on Spain, Rabat stated that the end of the GME deal will have "little impact" on the Kingdom.

In a joint statement, the Moroccan National Office of Hydrocarbons and Minerals (ONHYM) and the National Office of Electricity and Drinking Water said, "Given the nature of Morocco's neighbourhood and in anticipation of this decision, the necessary arrangements have been made to ensure the continuity of the country's supply of electricity".

According to the Moroccan energy expert’s statement to The New Arab, Morocco encouraged foreign companies to launch exploration drilling in the Kingdom's cities in recent years by offering 75% of the benefit licenses, with the remaining 25% going to the state-owned company ONHYM.

The political fine print of Morocco's gas discovery
Morocco has long been dependent on Algerian oil, but recent political tensions between the neighbouring countries have resulted in a break in diplomatic ties. [Getty]

The step coaxed several companies to start drilling in Morocco, including Sound Energy, which announced in November last year that it will deliver to the Maghreb-Europe gas pipeline (GME) an annual contractual volume of up to 350 million cubic meters of natural gas per year, thanks to its exploration license in the Tundrara commune in Morocco’s eastern region.

"In the meantime, Tundrara gas supplies are the only national source Morocco has to meet its annual natural gas needs. However, Tundrara’s 350 million cubic meters are not enough to cover the 700 million cubic meters that GME used to provide," said the Moroccan energy expert.

Other companies joined the gas drilling marathon in the Kingdom, including Chariot Oil and Gas, which has had a license in Larache, Mohammedia, and Kenitra since 2016, and Predator Oil and Gas in the Guercif region, which has recently announced promising potential gas reservoirs in its research that Moroccan media hailed as the beginning of the end of Morocco’s dependence on foreign energy sources.

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A gas discovery hailed as a national victory

Moroccan media, on all its official channels and news websites, has provided coverage on the issue and participated in introducing the discovery through "a patriotic national campaign," said Oussama Bajji, a Moroccan journalist and researcher in mediatic speech.

As soon as the gas discovery in Larache was announced, analytical stories, simplified infographics, and videos with propagandistic music stormed Moroccan media, introducing the gas discovery to Moroccan citizens while emphasising the political and social benefits that Larache's treasure will offer Morocco.

"Moroccan media did not cover the gas discoveries as regular topics, but rather hailed them as national victories"

In the long-standing Moroccan-Algerian cold war, everything from football matches, traditional clothes, and natural treasures can be transformed from normal events into political battlegrounds.

Decades-long North African tensions have always centred around the disputed territory of Western Sahara, which Morocco claims sovereignty over, while Algeria endorses the separatist military movement Polisario Front, which calls for the territory's independence.

However, Morocco’s normalisation of ties with Israel in exchange for US recognition of the Kingdom’s sovereignty over Western Sahara has fuelled the rift, as Algerian officials voiced their condemnation of the normalisation while Morocco’s foreign minister, Nasser Bourita, applied a non-tolerance policy against any doubt over "the Moroccan-ness of Sahara."

The North African neighbours cut all diplomatic ties last year before ending the GME later in 2021, the last link between the historical rivals.

Basma El Atti is The New Arab's Morocco correspondent.

Follow her on Twitter: @elattibasma