The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.
It's probably not quite here yet, but the trend is unmistakeable; the world is moving to a globally-linked natural gas market and the rise of liquefied natural gas (LNG) is the key driver. Much of the increase in LNG capacity is because of the building of new plants in Australia and the United States, as both countries take advantage of abundant local reserves of natural gas to muscle in on a market that
until recently had been dominated by a few established producers and buyers.
But it is perhaps ironic that while the action on the capacity side of LNG is an Australian and American story, the ultimate controlling player of the emerging global natural gas market is likely to be Europe. This is because Europe is likely to act as a "clearing house" for surplus LNG cargoes, given it has excess re-gasification capacity and the ability to use the fuel for a variety of purposes, from power generation to manufacturing to household heating.
Europe is also the only region that can effectively arbitrage between LNG and pipeline prices, given its connection to Russian and other Eastern natural gas via pipelines. The continent is also best-placed to use market forces to find a price level for natural gas versus its competitors, given it still has substantial coal-fired power in some countries as well as being a leader in renewables such as wind and solar.
To understand Europe's role in the LNG market, it's worth examining how the dynamics of trade in the super-chilled fuel are changing with the rise of Australia and the United States.
LNG has traditionally been an opaque and tightly-controlled market, where a small number of exporters signed long-term, oil-linked contracts with an equally small number of buyers, who were more concerned about energy security than price.
The major producers included Qatar, Indonesia and Malaysia, while the top buyers were concentrated in North Asia, namely Japan and South Korea, and also in Europe.
It was inevitable that this situation would be disrupted once global energy giants such as Chevron, Royal Dutch Shell and Exxon Mobil decided to pour some $200 billion into developing eight new LNG projects in Australia. When the last of these new plants is operating, most likely by 2018, Australia will have around 80 million tonnes of annual LNG capacity, overtaking Qatar as the top exporter.
Not far behind Australia on the development scale is the United States, with 16 million tonnes of LNG capacity already operating at the Sabine Pass facility in the Gulf of Mexico. A further 60.5 million tonnes of annual capacity is under construction, and will arrive from late in 2017 to the end of 2019, with the bulk scheduled to be commissioned in 2018.
LNG THE LAST TO BOOM AND BUST?
The International Gas Union (IGU), the industry's lobby group, said in its annual review in April that there was 340 million tonnes of LNG capacity as at the end of 2016, and a further 114 million tonnes under construction as of the start of this year.
LNG is equally likely to move into an oversupply situation by 2020, notwithstanding increased imports by China and the emergence of new buyers in Asia, such as Pakistan and Singapore. It's this oversupply dynamic that is changing the way LNG is traded, with buyers no longer willing to lock into long-term contracts linked to the price of crude oil. The economics of the LNG market then come down to shipping costs across various routes, and it's here that Europe comes into its own.
It's highly unlikely that Australian LNG will flow to the Atlantic Basin, given the long sea voyage, which adds to the cost but also increases the loss from boil-off. This means Australian LNG will have to find a home in Asia, where its geographic position gives it an advantage over Qatar and producers in Africa or the United States.
The swing supplier will likely be the United States, which can ship to Europe, Asia, and Latin America. It's also likely that Qatar may feel increasing pressure in Asia as it has to compete with new Australian supplies, meaning it either has to find new buyers in East Asia or push cargoes westward to Europe. It's also the case that much of the demand growth for LNG will be concentrated in Asia, but that doesn't necessarily mean the region will become the hub for LNG.
Rather, it's Europe with its plentiful re-gasification capacity and pipeline and storage infrastructure that can play that role.
Among European countries, Spain has the best potential as an LNG hub, given its proximity to Qatar, West and North African producers and the United States.
Despite being a substantially smaller market than Asia, Europe will become the kingmaker in LNG.
Read Clyde's full article at reuters.com.