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SINGAPORE/BEIJING: Qatar is in talks to make Chinese firms partners in its liquefied natural gas expansion project, the world's largest, in a shift from the Gulf state's reliance on western majors for technology and global outreach, industry sources said.

Since the early 1990s, Qatar has depended on international companies, including ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell and Total, to help it to build its LNG industry. In exchange, the Western majors received lucrative long-term supply contracts.

But the U.S. shale gas revolution and increased focus on renewable energy as pressure mounts to tackle climate change has curbed the West's appetite for gas.

Three sources familiar with the matter told Reuters state energy giant Qatar Petroleum (QP) was in talks with Chinese state firms, including PetroChina and Sinopec , for equity stakes in Qatar's $28.7 billion North Field expansion, the world's biggest single LNG project.

Western majors ExxonMobil, Shell, ConocoPhillips, Total, Chevron and Eni have also been invited to bid for a share.

The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because the matter is private, although CNOOC Ltd's CFO Xie Weizhi said last month the firm was "very interested" in Qatar's gas projects.

It was unclear how advanced the talks were. One of the sources said PetroChina was discussing a 5% stake.

The North Field expansion should allow Qatar to strengthen its position as the largest LNG exporter, with output of 110 million tonnes per annum (mtpa) by 2026, a 40% increase.

The second largest exporter Australia has been closing the gap with Qatar through new gas projects in recent years.

Refinitiv Eikon shiptracking data showed Australia exported 77.3 million tonnes in 2020 compared with Qatar's 77.6 million tonnes.

Although not carbon free, natural gas is less polluting than coal and China is expected to use it to replace coal in winter heating, electricity generation and industry to curb its emissions.

As a result, China is expected by next year to overtake Japan as the world's biggest LNG importer.

China has already agreed supply deals and invested in producers such as Russia and Mozambique and is keen to diversify from Australian LNG following a deterioration in bilateral ties.

For its part, Qatar has courted China, whose gas demand accounted for about 8.3% of the world's total in 2020 and is expected to grow by 8.6% in 2021 to 354.2 billion cubic metres, data from CNPC's research institute showed.

Saad al-Kaabi, Qatar's energy minister and the head of QP, has met Zhang Jianhua, director of China's National Energy Administration several times since 2018 to discuss cooperation.

Sinopec and Qatar signed two long-term deals, one last year and one earlier this year, following which Sinopec set up an office in Doha.

"China is the fastest growing market and is looking into long-term contracts to secure supply," Carlos Torres Diaz from Rystad Energy consultancy said. "So moving deals to China would make a lot of sense for Qatar."

ABLE TO STAND ALONE?

The western energy companies' expertise and investment helped to make Qatar the world's richest country on a per capita basis and to build up a sovereign wealth fund holding more than $350 billion in assets.

Now the joint LNG projects are established, Qatar is in a position to move forward without them.