CAIRO — Libya's oil exports have "ground to a halt" because of the fighting between rebels and pro-government forces, and it could be months before the country's crude resurfaces on world markets, the International Energy Agency said Tuesday.
The Paris-based group, whose members are mainly oil-consuming industrial nations such as the United States, also said that production from the North African nation appeared to have "slowed to a trickle" as the fighting and mounting unrest prompted an exodus of foreign oil workers and led international companies to halt their operations in the country.
The IEA said that while the rebellion against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi continues, "what is becoming clearer is the country's oil production and exports could be off the market for many months due to both war-inflicted damage on oil infrastructure and international sanctions."
The fighting in Libya, which has served as the stage for the most violent of the anti-regime protests sweeping the Middle East, drove oil prices as high as almost $107 per barrel last week on the New York Mercantile Exchange before they quickly cooled after the massive earthquake that ravaged Japan. The U.S. benchmark crude futures contract was around $99 per barrel in electronic trading on the Merc on Tuesday.
The assessment, presented in the IEA's latest month oil market report, reaffirms the belief of many in the market that Libya's vital oil industry was all-but-shuttered amid the fighting. The country sits atop Africa's largest proven reserves of conventional crude, and had produced about 1.6 million barrels per day. Most of its exports went to Europe.
At least three of the major ports in the east are no longer exporting, and an official with the Arabian Gulf Oil Co. in the east said Monday that they were not expecting another tanker until mid-April from the terminal in Tobruk, near the Egyptian border.
Other ports have been shut down, with the Ras Lanouf facility suffering a fire at a kerosene storage facility. Even if they are open, tankers have steered clear because of the shelling by pro-Gadhafi forces.
Similarly, analysts believe that what little production remains is likely to have been shut in, or will be shut down, given that the net outcome of shipping oil through pipelines during a military campaign could easily be a major explosion.
Gadhafi's forces have been pushing to recapture the eastern ports, which represent at least 65 percent of the country's export capacity. The country's oil minister has said output is down by about two-thirds of its normal level, but the fighting, communication cuts and other challenges have made it impossible to independently verify the figures put forward both by the government or the rebels.
Many analysts believe that they may try to restart the fields with what limited oil labor force available to the state-run National Oil Co., but that such a step would be essentially irrelevant given that there appear to be few willing buyers of Libyan oil because of the mounting international sanctions on the country.
"While approximately half the country's output was halted in the first few weeks of the rebellion, by 11 March it appeared that production had slowed to a trickle, not least because of the fighting," the IEA said. "Indeed, it is understood that most oil field operations have been shut-in or sharply curtailed, with transport routes choked off."
Other members of the 12-nation Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries – most notably Saudi Arabia – have ramped up production to offset the loss of Libyan oil. Several minister have said there are informal discussions about whether there was a need to meet ahead of their June gathering to determine whether their output quotas needed to be revised to cool surging prices.
The IEA said OPEC crude oil output was down slightly less than 100,000 barrels per day in February, with increases from other members of the producer bloc largely offsetting the drop in Libya's production.