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U.S. LNG Imports: The Waiting Is the Hardest Part

U.S. liquefied natural gas (LNG) executives once frequently quoted the film Field of Dreams -- "If you build it, they will come" -- when talking up their regasification terminal plans. These days it would be more apt for them to take a page from Samuel Beckett's famous play Waiting for Godot.

"We are in a period of unprecedented shortage of LNG," Richard Bergsieker, Galway Group LP managing director, said at the Platts annual Liquefied Natural Gas conference in Houston last Thursday. He wasn't telling attendees anything they didn't already know. One in the audience was particularly distressed by the carnage that was being visited upon shares of regasification terminal developer Cheniere Energy (see related story).

Insatiable world demand for LNG, particularly in Asia; high prices for crude oil, which dictates the price of some LNG; new consumers of LNG, such as China; resource nationalism and growing domestic demand among would-be exporters; and the delay/shelving of liquefaction projects due to high prices for labor, steel and other materials have all made for a strong seller's market, which wasn't always the case.

"It almost seems like wherever you go if one issue doesn't get you, then one of these other issues will get you...all around the world," said Darren Jones, ConocoPhillips president of global gas. He allowed that the industry is "behind what we thought a couple of years ago" when it comes to the development of liquefaction. "We're pedaling fast, but we're not making much progress.

"LNG is going to be in high demand and relatively shorter supply for a while."

Analysts at Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co. note that the United States will have 17.4 Bcfe/d of regas capacity by the end of 2010. "Owners of these terminals are probably the only people you'll find that don't like U.S. supply growth from shale plays," they wrote in a recent research note. "We've said it before, we'll say it again...many of these terminals will sit idle for most of the year."

The analysts recently lowered their LNG importation forecast by 0.7 Bcf/d to 1.3 Bcf/d, a decrease of 0.7 Bcf/d year over year. "Nine months ago we thought 2008 U.S. LNG imports would be up 1 Bcf/d year over year (to 3 Bcf/d)," they wrote. "We couldn't have been much more wrong as today it looks like 2008 will be down 0.7 Bcf/d year over year (at 1.3 Bcf/d)."

For this the analysts blame disruptions to global LNG supply; colder than normal winter weather, particularly in Asia and Europe; and increased Asian demand due to nuclear power outages.

Gas storage in Europe is about 40% full, the analysts note. "Europe will continue to pull LNG cargoes as it works to rebuild storage. Spain is also suffering from severe drought (40% less rain than normal since October), which could impact hydropower this summer...While winter is behind us, both Japan and Korea have ongoing nuclear outages [and] continue to take incremental cargoes."

Looking at the current LNG spot market -- for cargoes produced in excess of contracted volumes or that have destination flexibility in their contracts -- the analysts see the Asia-Pacific market offering $12-14/Mcf, Spain offering $12/Mcf, the United Kingdom offering $11.70/Mcf and the United States offering $11.40/Mcf. "Until global arbs open up to U.S. cargoes, we do not expect to see a dramatic ramp [up] in U.S. imports," the analysts wrote.

Nor are long-term LNG contracts in the offing at current U.S. prices. A typical LNG contract today is priced at about 88% of the Japanese crude cocktail price with a maximum cap on oil price of $150-200/bbl. At $125/bbl oil the LNG contract price would be $18.30/Mcf. The analysts wrote that Japanese customers have even allowed Australia supplier Woodside's Northwest Shelf LNG project to renegotiate contracts signed before 2006 to increase their price range. "[C]learly the Japanese want happy suppliers as they look to future long-term agreements.

"With U.S. natural gas pricing well below 88% of oil parity ($18.30/Mcfe at $125/bbl oil), it is easy to see why no long-term contracts have been signed for U.S. ports without flexible destination clauses. We'll say it again...the U.S. remains market of last resort for [the] global LNG market."

Unlike Beckett's Godot, however, the LNG eventually will come.

"As the supply of flexible LNG increases and nuclear problems in Japan are resolved as expected, the forecast Asian demand gap will be filled in the relatively near future by what is currently flexible LNG," said Rudy Adamiak, Suez Global LNG Ltd.'s senior vice president for business development. "The Atlantic Basin supply will balance the seasonal demand from the Pacific. Although new contra-seasonal projects in Asia and the Middle East will emerge, we expect that the U.S. market will absorb flexible LNG volumes in excess of global demand, especially during the summertime when storage is refilled. The growing volumes of flexible LNG will reduce the current value of arbitrage. And finally, a global LNG spot short-term market continues to emerge and evolve."

The outlook for global LNG supply improves particularly late next year when it is expected that a number of liquefaction trains will be coming on-line, said Per-Christian Fett, senior consultant with Norwegian ship brokerage Fearnleys LNG.

The United States is the fourth largest LNG importer in the world behind Japan, South Korea and Spain. The 15 countries that currently export LNG hold about 33% of world gas reserves, according to the Energy Information Administration. "The U.S. will get LNG when we need it and when nobody else needs it," Jones said.

Asked how he views the relative merits of capital investment in exploration and production versus LNG projects, Jones was quick to speak up for the continuing attractiveness of LNG projects, at least the economic ones.

"Any LNG project that you can get a return on you're going to push forward as you can now," he said. "I don't really see a tradeoff there. Gas is looking good and we'll pursue all that we can."

Future LNG supply development could well be too late for Cheniere, but will surely be welcomed by its peers, as well as by owners of LNG tankers, of which the world currently has more than it needs, Fett said. By his count there are about 55 tankers to be delivered this year and 30-35 scheduled to arrive in 2009. The "hype" in the LNG tanker market is over, Fett said. "We don't see many new ship owners coming into the market..."

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