Exports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the United States, and also Australia, are giving the global gas market something it hasn't had before: competitive supply that is not under the thumb of governments or national oil companies, a Cheniere Energy Inc. executive said Thursday in Washington, DC.
"We will look back in years to come and say 2016 was kind of the start of the change, a really quite fundamental change in the global gas market," Cheniere's Andrew Walker, vice president for strategy, said at an Atlantic Council forum. "Cheniere has sent out seven cargoes. The first went out on the 24th of February. We have sent those cargoes out to a range of markets: South America, the Middle East, Asia (if you count India as Asia, which I do) and, indeed, Europe."
It might seem obvious that LNG is in abundance now, Walker admitted, but that hasn't always been the case. The reasons for today's abundance are significant.
"There's a reason why LNG hasn't been abundant through most of its 50 years, and that's because it's come from countries that were centrally controlled by governments or national oil companies that controlled the exports," he said. "So you did not have multiple LNG projects competing to export the national resource. Companies did not allow it to happen."
That made the global LNG market prone to shortage. But with Australia and the United States emerging as major suppliers, multiple liquefaction and export projects with multiple trains will compete at the direction of a free market, not governments.
"It kind of sounds obvious, but a lot of people miss that," Walker said. "That's why we have LNG abundance."
Besides abundance, supply needs to be cost-competitive to shift the market, and the United States has a lot of cheap gas, thanks to shale plays. There is about 800 Tcf of available supply that can be produced at $3/Mcf or less, Walker said.
"You can also build LNG infrastructure in the U.S. pretty much more cheaply than anywhere else; $500 per ton per annum. It has cost people three times that to build in Australia. Low-cost gas, low-cost infrastructure, that's a hard combination to beat. Abundance, the U.S. is going to be a price-setter for the future. We've gone from an industry that's constrained to an industry where you have abundance of supply with a transparent price."
Add to abundance and price transparency the fact that cargoes coming from the U.S. Gulf Coast will increasingly be "destination free," meaning they can seek the most advantageous import terminal, not burdened by point-to-point commitments.
"We've released some of the constraints that have been typical of the industry, destination constraints that have meant buyers have been constrained in terms of flexibility of how they can use the volumes," Walker said. "The U.S. is destination-free LNG and that's going to make the system much more flexible, as a result, much more responsive, much more resilient.
"Abundance plus flexibility will equal liquidity, and that will be a real change in the industry. The LNG industry is pretty illiquid so in the prompt it's very very different from the oil industry, but we are heading towards a more commoditized nature. I don't think we're going to see the industry suddenly become commoditized tomorrow, but we certainly are on that journey, and that's the journey that the U.S. is kind of moving us along in terms of the global gas markets."