Ross McCracken, managing editor of Platts Energy Economist, has covered the LNG market, among others, for more than a decade. In this post, he pulls together the seemingly disconnected threads that make the LNG market tick, showing that while LNG has a potentially large role in the transition to more secure, low-carbon energy systems, it also suffers some serious weaknesses as a fossil fuel import.
Japanese utility Kansai Electric lost all its nuclear output in March, following a court injunction challenging the recent restart of its Takahama 3 and 4 reactors. On the other side of the Pacific Ocean, for the citizens of Brazil, rain proved a welcome distraction from the country’s political crisis, while in Syria an uneasy truce has broken out amongst the country’s warring factions.
In the ancient city of Rome, the executives of Italian oil and gas major Eni are pondering the wisdom of a multi-billion dollar investment decision in Mozambique, a decision they expect to take this year – but also one they had hoped to take last year. The thread that binds these seemingly disconnected events together, and which would change the regional East African economy forever, is LNG.
Japan is the world’s largest consumer of LNG and national demand for the commodity hit record highs in the aftermath of the devastating Fukushima nuclear disaster. That calamitous event saw all of the country’s substantial nuclear capacity come offline, raising oil, LNG and coal demand in a desperate attempt to generate enough electricity to keep the economy afloat.
Japan’s LNG imports jumped from 85.90 Bcm in 2009 to 120.6 Bcm in 2014, representing 36.2% of world LNG trade. The country’s coal demand rose from 108.8 million tons of oil equivalent to 128.6 mtoe in 2013, and the disaster briefly reversed a decade-long decline in Japanese oil demand.
However, Fukushima also sparked a boom in solar power, one of the few technologies that offers both a reduction in Japan’s dependency on imported energy commodities and lower greenhouse gas emissions, and, perhaps long-term, a deeper structural shift in the country’s primary energy supply. Japanese LNG demand is set to decline over the long-term, and, if the world’s largest LNG market is contracting, LNG suppliers need to look elsewhere for demand growth.
Rainfall in the Amazon
They could look to Latin America. Back across the Pacific, as the Takahama reactor turbines slowed, the residents of Sao Paulo, South America’s largest city, reached their arms into the air to welcome the rain. Brazil has been suffering a savage two-year drought, which has led to sometimes severe water rationing. Throughout 2015, Sao Paulo’s largest reservoir, Cantareira, was churning the muddy water below pump level.
Levels in Brazil’s vast hydroelectric reservoirs plummeted. Given the country’s dependence on hydropower, the only alternative was to ramp up LNG imports, a situation faced by all of the continent’s major economies. Between 2009 and 2014, South and Central America’s LNG imports leapt from 3.27 Bcm to 21.4 Bcm, an almost sevenfold increase, marking the emergence of a major new, but volatile, market for the commodity. However, how consistent this demand proves to be depends on the rain and Argentina’s ability to develop its own massive shale oil and gas reserves.
Sending coal to Newcastle
Perhaps more surprisingly, given its own natural gas endowment, the Middle East too has become a new market for LNG. Kuwait, Egypt, Israel and the United Arab Emirates all now import LNG. Conflict and political division have long obstructed the development of regional gas pipelines that would have made these LNG import facilities unnecessary. Peace in Syria, if it holds long term, could ultimately see the resumption of plans to pipe gas between the states of the Middle East and perhaps even further afield to Europe. But then again, peace may prove a double-edged sword for LNG; many of today’s LNG importers are potentially tomorrow’s exporters.
Surplus to requirements
The LNG industry has already entered a period of surplus and has a long list of projects under construction on which it is too late to turn back. This will bring ever-rising supply out to 2020. Yet what were once flourishing markets now look less certain, a reminder that expectations can change radically in less than a decade. The spot price of LNG is now close to a fifth of post-Fukushima levels.
As the Argentinean government moves to protect the development of its shale oil and gas reserves from low prices, perhaps the most salutary reminder of all is the US shale revolution. Seen less than a decade ago as huge new market for LNG imports, the US is on the cusp of becoming a major exporter.
Decision time in Rome
What then for the executives in Rome? Do they commit billions of dollars to their giant gas finds offshore East Africa, gambling that Japanese public opinion will turn against its nuclear industry, that rainfall in the Amazon basin will be low, that Argentina will fail in its quest for energy independence, and that the Middle East will never achieve meaningful inter-regional energy cooperation?
And what of renewables, which in Europe and the United States now hold the largest share of newly- installed generating capacity? The renewables boom continues to spread and its technologies to develop, boosted by the historic Paris Agreement on Climate Change agreed upon last December.
Yet coal use worldwide appears to be peaking and its fall may prove LNG’s opportunity. The short-term outlook appears fairly certain; LNG is in oversupply and will remain cheap for the next two to three years at least, but this itself may give it a more central role in countries’ energy plans. That is the gamble that companies hoping to develop new projects must consider. LNG is the cleanest of the fossil fuels, but a fossil fuel nonetheless and an imported one to boot.
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