Ever since oil was discovered in Egypt in the late nineteenth century, it has been the main source of energy, besides coal, for many economic purposes. Having built the first well in 1886, the daily production was a meager 25 barrels. With the steady increase in energy needs for industries and other urban purposes, electricity was introduced to Egypt in the beginning of the last century to fill in a wide gap.
Despite the fact that the government counted mainly on electricity generated from water resources, like the High Dam, it had to look for other alternatives to produce electricity. Starting from the late seventies, steam power plants began to spread around the country. With more than forty of them covering all the provinces now, these plants depend mainly on oil derivatives – fuel oil (mazot) — and natural gas to operate.
In 1963, however, the government took a long-term view, pondering the possibility of depending on nuclear energy, in lieu of oil and gas, in producing electricity. Consequently, late President Gamal Abdel-Nasser took the decision to build Egypt’s first nuclear power station on the Mediterranean Coast at Sidi Kreir. The project, however, was halted because of the 1967 War. Following Egypt’s victory in the 1973 War, the project was brought to the forefront again. As part of the US-sponsored peace process, President Richard Nixon visited Cairo in 1974 and offered to provide Egypt with 600-megawatt nuclear reactors, though the plan was ultimately abandoned owing to a lack of funds.
Nevertheless, in the mid-1980s, the government saw that it was inevitable to look for other resources of energy. With the growing demand on oil and natural gas — which began to be used in the seventies — going nuclear was the only available option. President Hosni Mubarak held many meetings with senior state officials at the time to ponder the possibility of going nuclear to prop up economic development plans. The government was about to sign an agreement with a German company to build the first of ten planned nuclear reactors to be completed by 2000. Competition between Germany and other countries over their roles in the project hampered its implementation. Unfortunately, the 1986 Chernobyl disaster triggered a scare wave in Egypt and an anti-nuclear campaign led by the press. Thus, the government gave up the idea especially that many natural gas discoveries were made at that time.
However the idea was brought to life again during the past few years when energy officials began to sound the alarm about the necessity of having new energy resources instead of oil and natural gas. Minister of Petroleum, Sameh Fahmi, recently said that “the cost of buying oil and natural gas from foreign partners has increased sevenfold over the past ten years,” citing an international upsurge in energy prices as the main reason behind the increase. He pointed out that the government paid as much as $5.7 billion to foreign companies in 2006, compared to only $800 million in 1996 as a result of increasing energy prices, noting that energy prices in the domestic market remained very stable despite currency depreciation. The minister admitted that “such increases in energy costs pose a considerable challenge to the petroleum sector and adds pressure to the balance of payment.”
The government, the minister said, had allocated as much as LE40 billion in subsidies to oil products, financed by the financial surplus generated by the petroleum sector, against LE22.1 billion in subsidies a year earlier. Oil experts expect the bill of oil purchases from foreign partners to increase to LE42 billion in view of rising international crude prices.
The situation is further aggravated taking into consideration other figures declaring that there is an estimate of a 7% yearly increase in energy demands. Additionally, local consumption of oil and gas hit 52 million barrels in 2006, compared to 30 million barrels in 1999. This led to a decrease in oil and gas exports and an increase in government subsidies to keep oil prices affordable for the public. This also resulted in a decrease in the oil sector’s revenues, as the ministry pays for these subsidies.
The ministry says the confirmed reserves of oil and gas amount to 15.8 billion barrels of petroleum and aims to produce 100 million barrels a year in the coming period.
Oil officials’ repeated warnings prompted the government to take a daring step, having announced that it plans to go nuclear in the near future. During the National Democratic Party (NDP)’s annual convention, its assistant secretary-general Gamal Mubarak announced that the government would reactivate the long stalled nuclear program to generate electricity needed to grow industrial projects. Taking into consideration that oil and gas reserves will deplete within about 35 years from now, energy officials said that it is essential for Egypt to develop alternative energy sources rather than continue to rely on non-renewable hydrocarbons for electricity production.
This means Egypt must have an operational nuclear power plant within 7-10 years. The plan, according to Minister of Energy and Electricity Hassan Younis, is to build a 1,000- megawatt nuclear power plant at Al-Dabaa on the Mediterranean North coast, and with construction costs estimated at $1.5 billion the government will almost certainly seek foreign investment to finance the project.
“We had to [go nuclear] to reserve petroleum wealth for the coming generations, taking into consideration the steady increase in oil prices,” said Younis, following a Supreme Council for Energy meeting in October. The minister added that “we use 2.3 trillion cubic feet of natural gas annually to generate electricity.” Younis added that producing electricity from nuclear power plants “is more economic than producing it using [fuel] oil and gas. The nuclear program will go side by side with other projects to produce electricity from other alternatives like wind and solar energy to save oil for export to increase our national income.”
But to what extent will opting for nuclear energy affect the oil and gas industry in the near future?
Dr. Amr Kamal Hammouda, an oil expert and director of Al-Fustat Studies Center, holds the view that transforming to nuclear energy is of great importance to complete the energy system in Egypt. “However, there will be no full dependence on nuclear energy in generating electricity. The old power plants will continue operating by fuel oil and gas oil,” he explained.
“Certainly the nuclear power plants will soften this energy conundrum. But power plants consume about 15 million tons of oil and gas annually. We didn’t calculate it well when we depended mainly on traditional energy resources throughout the past decades. Our consumption of oil and gas increases by 8.5% annually. This means that by the year 2020, the consumption of oil and gas will hit 90 million tons, and then we will not be able to export neither oil nor natural gas. Also, we will have to import about 30-40 million tons of oil and gas annually to fill in the gap between supply and demand.”
“Our oil production is on the decrease,” Hammouda warned. “We used to produce about 900 thousand barrels a day in the nineties, and now we are producing about 570-600 thousand barrels a day.”
“An honest and precise assessment of our oil reserves and the possibility of exploring new wells,” Hammouda thinks, “is the only way out of this conundrum.”