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Tides Seen Shifting Under Global LNG Market

"It is an exciting time and a changing time in LNG [liquefied natural gas], that's for sure," Deloitte's Andrew Slaughter told NGI recently. Perhaps it was an understatement.

U.S. exports of LNG have been climbing. While they -- along with pipeline exports to Mexico -- have made the United States a net exporter of natural gas, the cargos haven't been going to the markets originally expected. Meanwhile, multiple initiatives are under way to bring more liquidity and price discovery to the global LNG market. Buyers are in the driver's seat, for now, and they're calling for greater contract flexibility. But the effect that rising oil prices (thanks, OPEC, maybe) will have on global LNG prices remains to be seen.

Last February saw North American LNG history being made with the departure of the first cargo from Cheniere Energy's Sabine Pass terminal in Louisiana -- a project originally envisioned as an import terminal not that many years ago. Back when the case for Lower 48 LNG exports was being made, most observers thought the cargos would all go to Asia, Slaughter, executive director of the Deloitte Center for Energy Solutions, told NGI. They've gone just about everywhere but.

Brazil, India, United Arab Emirates, Argentina, Portugal, Kuwait, Chile, Spain, China, Jordan, Dominican Republic, Mexico and Turkey have all been recipients of some of the roughly three-dozen cargos to depart Sabine Pass since February, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Japan's utility buying joint venture JERA Co. Inc. has only just taken its first cargo from Sabine Pass.

While quite a few cargos have gone to Latin America and some to Europe, the paucity of cargos bound for Asia is "indicative of a change in the global market," Slaughter said.

U.S. exports will continue to increase as more trains are added at Sabine and more terminals come online in Louisiana and Texas. That's a multi-year process, Slaughter said. The "next wave" of terminal development will be in the decade after this one.

"The interesting thing about U.S. exports is they're a lot more contractually flexible than some of the big contracts out of Australia or out of Qatar..." Slaughter said. "There's a lot more being held back for flexible, short-term, more trading-type commercial arrangements. That's going to be very interesting to see how that plays out over the next couple of years while the market is long LNG. What will that look like in terms of placement of more flexible volumes into the market from the U.S.? It's one to watch."

The world is long LNG, and that makes for a buyer's market, now and for a while to come.

"The buyers have got a lot more market power on their side," Slaughter said, adding that Japan's demand is relatively flat given the re-emergence of nuclear power there. Slaughter said he thinks Japan and other buyers will hold out for cargo destination flexibility in contracts, that is the ability to redirect cargos on the water for arbitrage or other reasons. Japanese buyers, such as JERA, have also been lobbying for the ability to resell unneeded cargos.

"JERA was set up for resale of cargos they didn't want to absorb in their system," Slaughter said. "I think they'll hold out for that. They'll be able to do that in this buyer's market, probably another five years or so, I would think. Whether they'll get agreements, the 20-year deals and build that in or not, that's another question. In the near term, I think they're in a good position to get that."

Meanwhile, there is talk, according to press reports, by Intercontinental Exchange Inc. (ICE) and CME Group Inc. of bringing derivatives to the global LNG marketplace. The LNG futures market talk is happening amid a growing spot market for LNG cargos. It's safe to assume many would like to see the LNG market mature to the point that it has its own price benchmark(s).

"We're entering a world in which something like that is needed, I think," Slaughter said, adding that he's not familiar with the particular plans of ICE or CME. "The historical model of 25-year, point-to-point deals under oil-indexed contracts, that's not going away, but new volumes are being developed to potentially smaller supply sources, smaller markets. There are portfolio players; there are traders coming in. There are financial intermediaries coming in. I think better price discovery makes the market more efficient and liquid...I think it's expected."

Slaughter wondered aloud whether the details of whatever contracts are eventually proposed will appeal to market participants. "...[T]hat might take a bit of working out," he said, adding that the questions lie there, not with the underlying principle of LNG futures. "I think price discovery, price transparency and the ability to transfer risk is a sign of the maturing of the LNG market."

Recently, the LNG world saw the launch of spot market electronic trading by Global LNG Exchange (GLX), "GLX believes the LNG market has now reached a tipping point and requires a 21st Century trading mechanism given its size, diversity and fragmentation,” spokesman Roger Martin told NGI in September. "GLX believes the platform can be the catalyst to transform the LNG market into a truly global, liquid, and transparent market."

While the need for a physical trading hub for LNG -- perhaps in Singapore -- has been discussed for years, Slaughter isn't holding his breath. "I think we're a little way off it as yet," he said. "I think derivatives trading will fill in some of the need for that. I think probably there is a need for physical physical hubs, but these are not quick to set up...We'll watch that over the next several years...There's still a way to go before we see it actually materialize."

Nearer on the horizon, perhaps, is the next wave of LNG liquefaction development in the United States. "Midscale" and "smaller scale" are terms spoken by several developers looking to the next liquefaction buildout. Improve project economics on the front end with procurement and construction, boost efficiencies and smaller liquefaction plants can be economic, they say.

Slaughter wonders about targeting smaller-scale customers, though. "It might be just as much of a challenge as it is for the large-scale [liquefaction plants]," he said. "Because if you remember, the large-scale buyers are big Japanese utilities, the Korean utilities. They're huge; they've got balance sheets; they've got good credit ratings and everything. These smaller-scale facilities, if they're targeting second-tier buyers, smaller offtake commitments, maybe not as good credit ratings, maybe not as good offtake reliability, then that might be just as much or more of a commercial challenge to place the gas than it would be with a large Korean or Japanese utility buyer."

In the near term, LNG prices will be more exciting to watch, perhaps. With OPEC concessions on production, the consequent support for oil prices could also lift prices for oil-indexed LNG, or not.

"Historically, pretty much all of the long-term contracts have been oil-indexed so three to six months down the road...LNG prices track oil prices up..." Slaughter said. "I'm just going to be watching whether the length of the LNG market globally with Australia, with Qatar, with the U.S., whether that actually prevents the LNG prices from tracking oil prices up, what will be the damper on that LNG price recovery...

"I think they might go up a bit...I'm just wondering will they go up to the same extent as oil prices. I think there might be a damper in there. That's my hypothesis. I'll be watching the data to see how that actually plays out. Usually there's at least a three-month, sometimes a six-month lag before you see an oil price change show up in the LNG price."

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