The past year could arguably be labeled as “China’s year that wasn’t”. The Year of the Dragon, while considered the luckiest of the Chinese zodiac, did not herald particularly auspicious tidings. Instead, China was saddled with a slowing economy, political scandals that rocked the country and territorial squabbles with its neighbors in the South China Sea.
In the energy sphere, widespread speculation about major overhauls to oil and gas pricing did not materialize, nor was progress made on gas pipeline sales from Russia. Monthly measurements of apparent oil demand contracted for the first time last year — in June and August — but then skyrocketed to record volumes at the end of the year.
Here’s what every China observer should have on their list to watch for in 2013.
Pricing reforms accelerated, slowly
If there’s anything we’ve learned by now, it is that the government is hard-pressed to adopt wide-ranging reforms overnight. While there is still hope for more open and deregulated energy market pricing this year, changes will still likely be piecemeal. This is certainly in line with energy policy planning, which the government approaches from a long-term perspective.
China has had a new trial natural gas pricing system in place in two provinces for more than a year and could extend this to other eastern provinces in the coming months. The idea is to “reform” gas prices so that they are on par with the costs associated with importing pipeline gas from Central Asia and LNG. But rather than making existing users pay more for natural gas, the focus for now will likely be on fuel substitution, where gas is cheaper than LPG and other fuels used in the transport and urban sectors.
On the oil side, the government was more attuned to the roiling crude oil market last year and adjusted oil product prices more frequently than in 2011, which limited state refiner’ losses. The government will likely introduce more changes to the existing pricing mechanism this year, once the new leadership settles down.
Rise of mid-stream gas companies
A consequence of increased gas consumption highlighted above will be a burgeoning of midstream infrastructure and companies involved in gas transmission. Anecdotal evidence from individual cities and provinces already suggests China is likely to see a tripling of small-scale liquefaction plants in the next two years to complement existing pipeline networks, which are already running at full capacity.
This presents ample expansion opportunities for non-state owned gas distribution companies such as China Gas Holdings, ENN Energy and China Resources Gas. To achieve further growth, these mid-sized companies could merge and combine portfolios to increase market share in certain regions and create value across the gas chain, as well as for shareholders. The latest example of this was with the merger of China Gas and London-listed Fortune Oil’s gas businesses late last year, which included upstream gas pipeline networks and upstream coalbed methane blocks.
Focus shifts to synthetic coal gas
While all the attention was firmly on China’s shale gas potential in 2012, state companies Sinopec and PetroChina quietly have been beefing up efforts to start producing syngas from coal in the last two years. Coal-to-gas production could potentially outstrip both shale gas and coalbed methane by the end of the current five-year economic plan in 2015, as well as by 2020, according to some estimates. Bernstein is predicting synthetic coal gas production to reach 16 billion cubic meters/year by 2015 and 55 billion cu m/year by 2020, representing 6% and 14%, respectively, of China’s total gas demand. This would be more than the 20.2 billion cu m/year of CBM output the bank expects by 2020.
Nomura Research is even more optimistic, forecasting syngas to account for 35% of China’s total gas supply by 2020. It estimates the price of syngas production to average $7-$8/Mcf, much cheaper than the expected $13-$17/Mcf for imported gas and LNG, which would trigger much faster development of syngas projects, particularly in China’s western regions, which are rich in coal.
The central government has started encouraging synthetic coal gas production and PetroChina and Sinopec have inked collaboration agreements with the local government in western Xinjiang province. Sinopec is developing two massive cross-country pipelines, each with 30 billion cubic meters/year of capacity, to transport synthetic coal gas produced by local coal companies in the province to China’s eastern coast.
Despite some $20 billion worth of outbound acquisitions announced last year, we haven’t seen the last of China’s state-owned oil companies. High oil and gas prices in the upstream have buoyed their cash reserves, and easy access to credit for domestic and policy banks make it all too easy for them to mount more acquisitions.
Building on their existing positions in shale and unconventional projects in North America, Sinopec, CNOOC and PetroChina will continue to focus their asset pickups in that region, where Henry Hub prices are low, the investment environment is stable and relatively low-risk, and, as evidenced by the recent approval of the Nexen takeover, host governments are warming to the idea of increased Chinese presence.
CNOOC’s ability to pull off the large-scale takeover of Nexen is further proof that Chinese companies are also becoming more savvy in M&A, so expect increased nimbleness in transactions and post-merger integration.
Also of note is Sinopec’s foray into the downstream last year, when it pledged investment of nearly $1 billion in two storage projects: a greenfield facility in Indonesia and a 50% stake in Swiss trader Mercuria’s Vesta Terminals in Europe. The company could follow in the footsteps of rival PetroChina and make more investments in refineries and related businesses overseas, boosting its global trading portfolio. It already has a 37.5% stake in the export-oriented YASREF refinery in Yanbu with Saudi Aramco.
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