New variant fears disrupt start of top U.S. energy conference



HOUSTON, Dec 5 (Reuters) - The World Petroleum Congress kicks off this week with a sharply trimmed roster of energy executives and government ministers to grapple with the oil market's future as the spread of the Omicron COVID-19 variant disrupted travel.

This year's four-day event, rescheduled from 2020 due to the pandemic, brings together the industry's main players about every three years. It was expected to feature officials from countries including Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, India and the United States discussing the role of new technologies and low-carbon strategies.

But travel restrictions and worries over the new variant had organizers scrambling on Sunday to fill gaps in the agenda.

Eight energy ministers - from Saudi, Kazakhstan, Qatar, Argentina, Equatorial Guinea, Greece, Turkey and Romania - bowed out, WPC officials said on Sunday. The chief executives of oil companies BP, Sonatrach and Qatar Energy also withdrew.

The high-level absences resulted from "travel restrictions and concerns" about the new variant, organizers said. The conference will proceed and replacements for some speakers are being sought, a spokesperson said.

RETRACED GAINS

The impact of the virus comes as the industry struggles with shortages of natural gas and power in Asia and Europe from output losses prompted by the pandemic. Multi-year-high energy prices recently retraced gains with new lockdowns.

Oil futures LCOc1 fell for the last six weeks, settling on Friday at $69.88 a barrel, down 19% from the year's peak in late October. OPEC, the oil producing nations group, last week agreed to continue its gradual relaxation of oil production curbs, but cautioned it could reverse itself if the coronavirus reduces fuel demand.

ENERGY TRANSITION

The discovery of the new, fast-spreading variant is overshadowing another pressing topic for those who are gathering in Houston. Faced with growing pressure over climate change concerns, oil producers must contend with government demands for lower-carbon emissions and a shift to cleaner fuels.

Monday's conference session is scheduled to begin with executives from Chevron, Exxon Mobil, Saudi Aramco, Equinor and TotalEnergies laying out their approaches to the world's transition away from fossil fuels.

On Tuesday, OPEC General Secretary Mohammad Barkindo is due to deliver his remarks remotely due to travel restrictions.
Reporting by Gary McWilliams; Editing by Daniel Wallis

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