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Powering equality – Q&A with Mahdjouba Belaifa, Head, Gas Market Analysis Department of GECF

Energy revolution cannot happen without women. This interview is published as part of a campaign launched by the Women in Energy Association (WONY).

Mahdjouba Belaifa Head of the Gas Market Analysis Department of GECF and a member of the Women in Energy Association shares her insights about the outlook for the gas industry and also how women can take an active role in shaping the future of this traditionally male-dominated sector.

You are heading the Gas Market Analysis Department at GECF, which is a  gathering of the world’s leading gas exporting countries. Overall, how has the pandemic altered the dynamics of the global gas market?

We can all agree that COVID-19 has changed ‘life as we knew it’ and has forced us to adapt to a new lifestyle and new norms that were not on the agendas of governments nor in the imagination of people.

As far as the gas market is concerned and prior to COVID-19, the market was already witnessing bearish trends due to an oversupplied LNG market and mild weather. The COVID-19 pandemic made the business-as-usual, unusual and new practices started to take place in 2020. This led to a global economic recession, contraction of gas production, unprecedented low prices, demand erosion, postponement and/or cancellation of several projects’ FIDs and significant budget cuts across the industry. Yet, the impact was not as dramatic as in the oil market.

To put some figures on the statements above, the global economy contracted by 4.2 per cent driven by OECD economies, natural gas demand dropped by 2-3.5 per cent from its 3.95 trillion cubic metres (tcm) recorded in 2019 and natural gas production declined by around 3.5 per cent of its 2019 level, based on our preliminary estimates. Around 20 billion cubic metres (bcm) of gas demand were lost in EU countries (Italy, Spain, France, Germany and the UK) in 2020 and more than 17 bcm in the US. The global active oil and gas rigs dropped by 50 per cent in July compared to the beginning of the year 2020. Furthermore, the gas and LNG prices went drastically low across the basins, converging to historical lows below 2 US dollars/MMBtu, leading to US LNG cargo cancellations as the price spread went into negative between May and September 2020.

Gas producers were forced to lower production costs in order to remain competitive and seek technological solutions to manage their assets within travel and other restrictions. GECF Member Countries, in particular, have demonstrated their resilience and reliability, continuing to build partnerships and break into emerging markets. Qatar, a GECF Member Country, has taken FID on the world’s largest LNG project, to raise its capacity to 110 metric tonnes per year (mtpa) by 2025, while also setting an industry benchmark for one of the world’s largest carbon capture and storage facilities.

Can you name some of the most important challenges that the gas market has to face this year?

There is undoubtedly a global cautiousness of the business towards the growing uncertainty that is shaping the gas industry. I will mention some of the most important challenges in our views.

First, we can mention that the uncertainty surrounding post COVID-19 and new strains remain extremely high in 2021. While there are positive signs of vaccination, the evolution of new strains of the virus is a great concern. As such the challenges of 2020 may continue to linger on, even as the world has learnt to live with this new normal.

Second, the gas market will continue to face weaker than expected gas demand in some areas where the lockdowns are extended in response to the resurgence of cases and emergence of other variants of Coronavirus and if the weather conditions don’t help to offset the losses of gas demand due to lockdown measures.

Third, the price aspect: while prices have seen some positive signs of recovery in 2021, they are unlikely to reach the levels of 2018. This is likely to put a caution on the financing of new infrastructure and projects. We are witnessing atypical price levels.

Also, there are a lot of talks about the pricing systems and adoption of hubs indexation, which seems not to sustain the security of supply. The GECF Summits Declarations of the Heads of State and Government, notably the declaration of Malabo expresses the support of GECF towards long-term oil/oil products indexed gas contracts “to ensure a stable investment in development of natural gas resources.”

Before GECF you worked 20 years with SONATRACH, the National Oil and Gas Company of Algeria. What is your experience as a woman in the generally male-dominated gas sector?

When I joined SONATRACH, I was feeling shy as all the colleagues were male, except the secretaries who were female. I was the only woman engineer in the division. It was challenging for me and interesting at the same time. I had to work harder than hardness to satisfy my hunger to be successful in the oil and gas industry and to meet the expectations of my management, all-male at that time. Nevertheless, I should admit that I was lucky to be coached by my managers and put on the spot with the toughest tasks. My work was always appreciated and commended and this helped me to build trust in myself within the organisation and to evolve in my career. I have also gotten the opportunity to meet inspiring women at high positions and I followed their path, which took me to managerial positions in SONATRACH and where I am now.

Have you seen some positive trends in the inclusivity of the energy industry? How do you see the role of the Women in Energy Association in increasing the visibility of women energy professionals?

Indeed, what I see is that there is no more dedicated jobs for men and others for women in the oil and gas industry. From secretaries and administrative positions only, women have grown in technical and senior industry executive positions in this immense and challenging industry. Though the share of women is still small, there is more acceptance and recognition of the role of women in this industry. Yet some executive positions are still male-dominated.

Based on a report prepared by the World Petroleum Council and the Boston Consulting Group, where I had the opportunity to be interviewed, women’s share in the oil and gas industry is the lowest when compared to other major industries (22 per cent versus 60 per cent in health and social work and 55 per cent in education).

As far as GECF is concerned, the distribution of the staff by gender shows 43 per cent women versus 57 per cent male. The interesting thing here is that there is a great diversity in the positions occupied by women in GECF Secretariat: managerial, professional and administrative positions.

Women in Energy Association is already playing a great role with regards to the enhancement of the visibility of women energy professionals. This interview is one of the simplest examples without mentioning the regular big events it is organising, where the female gender is always present at the highest level. What could be done in addition to this great job, is to organise advocacy campaigns for the gas industry for girls in secondary schools and universities to encourage them to embark in this industry, at the same time, advocacy campaigns for ladies within the industry. Considering the success stories of women in the sector and sharing them with the world could be a great approach. Also, a study on motivational patterns for the success of women in the oil and gas industry could be a great catalyst for positioning women in the energy sector.

What advice would you give to women who want to succeed in this industry?

You have to equip yourself strongly with inner ambition, patience, perseverance, challenging spirit, and keep positivity. Have a dream without constraints, believe in your dream, be a permanent learner and never give up!

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