Qatar on Sunday named France’s TotalEnergies as its first foreign partner to develop the world’s largest natural gas field and eventually help ease Europe’s energy fears.
The French energy major will have a 6.25-percent share of the giant North Field East project that will help Qatar increase its liquefied natural gas (LNG) production by more than 60 percent by 2027, Qatar’s Energy Minister Saad Sherida al-Kaabi told a news conference.
Kaabi said it was “a marriage more than an engagement” as the accord will last until 2054.
Other foreign firms will also have joint venture stakes with state-owned Qatar Energy (QE) but none will be bigger than TotalEnergies, said Kaabi, who did not reveal names.
Industry sources say ExxonMobil, Shell and ConocoPhillips are all in line to take part in the giant $28-billion expansion, that Qatar had originally wanted to finance alone.
“We have finished the selection process and we have signed the agreements,” Kaabi said, adding that names would be announced in the “near future”.
With European nations scrambling to find alternatives to Russian oil and gas, LNG from North Field is expected to start coming on line in 2026.
TotalEnergies chief executive Patrick Pouyanne said the company’s biggest deal with Qatar would help make up for the company’s withdrawal from Russia in the wake of the Ukraine invasion.
– Hard bargain –
Without giving figures, Pouyanne indicated that Qatar had demanded a high price in the talks that started in 2019.
“Your team and yourself have been a very good defender of Qatar’s interests in this project,” he said in comments to the minister who is also the QE chief.
“Qatar Energy certainly drove a hard bargain. But for the biggest global LNG players like Shell and TotalEnergies, Qatar is too good to pass up. A stake in these LNG trains delivers scale, low-cost supply, great marketing opportunities, and a good partner,” said Ben Cahill, an energy security specialist at the Center for Security and International Studies in Washington.
Qatar is already one of the world’s top LNG producers, alongside the United States and Australia.
QE estimates that North Field holds about 10 percent of the world’s known natural gas reserves.
The reserves extend under the sea into Iranian territory, where Tehran’s efforts to exploit its South Pars gas field have been hindered by international sanctions.
South Korea, Japan and China have become the main markets for Qatar’s LNG but since an energy crisis hit Europe last year, the Gulf state has helped Britain with extra supplies and also announced a cooperation deal with Germany.
Europe has for long rejected the long-term deals that Qatar seeks for its energy but the Ukraine conflict has forced a change in attitude.
Qatar’s expansion “underlines its position as a leader in this industry”, said Bill Farren-Price, head of macro oil and gas research at the Enverus energy consultancy.
“With gas balances tight globally amid reduced Russian gas exports to Europe, LNG is a key and growing component in the energy transition and Qatar is determined to leverage its world-class North Field reserves to capture additional value through this deal.
“Its partnership with TotalEnergies reinforces Doha’s political partnership with Western powers while giving it even more marketing options.”
The Ukraine conflict has also injected a new urgency into efforts around the world to develop new sources.
Tanzania on Saturday signed a framework agreement with British and Norwegian energy giants Shell and Equinor towards implementing a $30-billion project to export its natural gas.
Global media giants battle for IPL cricket rights
Global media giants including Disney and Sony and Asia’s richest man reportedly battled Sunday for the broadcast rights for the Indian Premier League cricket tournament, one of the world’s most-watched sporting events.
The winning bidders were expected to pay up to $7.7 billion in an online auction held by India’s cricket board on Sunday to show and stream the two-month contest for five seasons from 2023 to 2027, according to analysts.
This dwarfs the $2.55 billion shelled out by Star India, owned by US behemoth Disney, for the previous five-year deal which ended last month with the 15th edition of the tournament involving an expanded 10 franchises playing 74 matches.
Attracting some of cricket’s top stars from India and abroad with large salaries, the league has helped make Twenty20, a shorter and more exciting format of the sport, hugely popular, spawning copycat events worldwide.
This time the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) is selling off four different packages including domestic and international television and online streaming rights as well as for special matches.
Besides Disney and Sony, bidders in the auction, which could stretch into Monday, include a consortium including Viacom as well as Reliance, owned by Asia’s wealthiest man Mukesh Ambani, reports said.
Fellow tycoon Jeff Bezos’s Amazon, which has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on rights for European soccer and American football and had earlier shown interest in the IPL, pulled out of the contest, reports said on Friday.
Sanctioned Ukraine tycoon seeks to support war effort
Sanctioned by Ukraine in the past over his close ties to Russia, Dmytro Firtash, one of the country’s wealthiest citizens, made international headlines this week for saying he is sheltering hundreds of Ukrainians in his chemical factory.
“This war is completely pointless and cannot be justified in any way, it only brings suffering and misery on all sides. This humanitarian tragedy is intolerable,” the 57-year-old said in a statement on his company’s website.
A one-time ally of ousted pro-Russian Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, Firtash, who is currently in Austria and fighting extradition to the US on bribery accusations, has a controversial history.
– Providing refuge –
In June 2021, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky signed a decree imposing sanctions on Firtash, including the freezing of his assets and withdrawal of licences from his companies, after accusing him of selling titanium products to Russian military companies.
But now some 800 civilians, including 200 factory workers, have taken refuge in the bunkers of the Azot chemical plant, owned by Firtash’s Group DF, in Ukraine’s strategic eastern city of Severodonetsk, the tycoon’s lawyer Lanny Davis said this week.
Russian troops have been pushing for control of the key city over the past weeks as part of their effort to conquer eastern Ukraine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin “is never going to come out victorious… No matter what happens, Russia will lose,” Firtash said in an NBC News interview in April.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Firtash’s Inter has also joined the pool of several main Ukrainian news channels, which broadcast news 24/7 and fully reflect the official position of the Ukrainian authorities.
Before the invasion, Inter, one of the largest Ukrainian national TV channels, was considered pro-Russian.
Firtash insists he has always been pro-Ukrainian, telling NBC that he was “never pro-Russian”.
“But you have to understand that I am a businessman. And my goal is to earn money. That’s my job,” he said in the interview.
An AFP request to interview Firtash is pending.
– Wanted by US –
Firtash is also wanted on bribery and racketeering charges in the United States.
In the case, Indian officials allegedly received $18.5 million in bribes to secure titanium mining licences in 2006.
The United States argues it has jurisdiction because the conspiracy involved using US financial institutions, travel to and from the US, and use of US-based communications — computers, telephones, and the internet.
Firtash, who denies the charges and says he is the victim of a smear campaign, was detained in Austria in March 2014.
He had to pay bail of 125 million euros ($130 million) — reportedly a record high for Austria — and has since not been able to leave the country.
Austria’s supreme court ruled in 2019 that he could be extradited. But Firtash is still fighting the extradition and can remain in Austria while court proceedings continue.
In an interview with CNN in May, Firtash said he had requested prosecutors to be allowed to return to Ukraine while the war is going on — but his request was denied.
He has also been accused of being involved in alleged efforts by Rudy Giuliani, former New York mayor and a personal lawyer of former US president Donald Trump, to dig up dirt on Joe Biden before he became president, but Firtash denies ever having met with Giuliani.
Born in a village in western Ukraine, Firtash’s father was a diver and his mother an accountant, and for additional income the family grew tomatoes.
Firtash began his business career by organising commodity trading in Ukraine and Russia.
In 1993, he established business ties in Central Asia and organised the supply of consumer goods in exchange for natural gas.
In 2004, he set up a joint venture with Russia’s Gazprom to supply natural gas from Central Asia to Ukraine and other European countries.
Three years later, Firtash set up Group DF, growing it into a business empire, employing some 100,000 people.
The group is involved in energy, chemicals, media, banking and property in Ukraine and other countries.
Is AI the future of art?
To many they are art’s next big thing — digital images of jellyfish pulsing and blurring in a dark pink sea, or dozens of butterflies fusing together into a single organism.
The Argentine artist Sofia Crespo, who created the works with the help of artificial intelligence, is part of the “generative art” movement, where humans create rules for computers which then use algorithms to generate new forms, ideas and patterns.
The field has begun to attract huge interest among art collectors — and even bigger price tags at auction.
US artist and programmer Robbie Barrat — a prodigy still only 22 years old — sold a work called “Nude Portrait#7Frame#64” at Sotheby’s in March for £630,000 ($821,000).
That came almost four years after French collective Obvious sold a work at Christie’s titled “Edmond de Belamy” — largely based on Barrat’s code — for $432,500.
– A ballet with machines –
Collector Jason Bailey told AFP that generative art was “like a ballet between humans and machines”.
But the nascent scene could already be on the verge of a major shake-up, as tech companies begin to release AI tools that can whip up photo-realistic images in seconds.
Artists in Germany and the United States blazed a trail in computer-generated art during the 1960s.
The V&A museum in London keeps a collection going back more than half a century, one of the key works being a 1968 piece by German artist Georg Nees called “Plastik 1”.
Nees used a random number generator to create a geometric design for his sculpture.
– ‘Babysitting’ computers –
Nowadays, digital artists work with supercomputers and systems known as Generative Adversarial Networks (GANs) to create images far more complex than anything Nees could have dreamed of.
GANs are sets of competing AIs –- one generates an image from the instructions it is given, the other acts as a gatekeeper, judging whether the output is accurate.
If it finds fault, it sends the image back for tweaks and the first AI gets back to work for a second try to beat the gamekeeper.
But artists like Crespo and Barrat insist that the artist is still central to the process, even if their working methods are not traditional.
“When I’m working this way, I’m not creating an image. I’m creating a system that can create images,” Barrat told AFP.
Crespo said she thought her AI machine would be a true “collaborator”, but in reality it is incredibly tough to get even a single line of code to generate satisfactory results.
She said it was more like “babysitting” the machine.
Tech companies are now hoping to bring a slice of this rarefied action to regular consumers.
Google and Open AI are both touting the merits of new tools they say bring photorealism and creativity without the need for coding skills.
– Enter the ‘transformers’ –
They have replaced GANs with more user-friendly AI models called “transformers” that are adept at converting everyday speech into images.
Google Imagen’s webpage is filled with absurdist images generated by instructions such as: “A small cactus wearing a straw hat and neon sunglasses in the Sahara desert.”
Open AI boasts that its Dalle-2 tool can offer any scenario in any artistic style from the Flemish masters to Andy Warhol.
Although the arrival of AI has led to fears of humans being replaced by machines in fields from customer care to journalism, artists see the developments more as an opportunity than a threat.
Crespo has tried out Dalle-2 and said it was a “new level in terms of image generation in general” — though she prefers her GANs.
“I very often don’t need a model that is very accurate to generate my work, as I like very much when things look indeterminate and not easily recognisable,” she said.
Camille Lenglois of Paris’s Pompidou Centre — Europe’s largest collection of contemporary art — also played down any idea that artists were about to be replaced by machines.
She told AFP that machines did not yet have the “critical and innovative capacity”, adding: “The ability to generate realistic images does not make one an artist.”
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