Liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports are inching another step closer for Sempra Energy’s Cameron LNG facility in Louisiana after federal regulators on Wednesday approved introducing hazardous fluids and feed gas, as well as other commissioning activities, at Train 1.

In its order, FERC said Cameron could proceed with introducing hazardous fluids and commissioning the inside battery limits (ISBL) wet flare system, ISBL low pressure wet flare system and feed gas to fuel gas system for the initial train. The approval was based on staff inspections and review of information filed.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission said Cameron must comply with all applicable remaining terms and conditions in its order, as well as any applicable requirements from the Department of Transportation. FERC’s order did not include authorization to introduce hazardous fluids or commission other facilities at the terminal.

It could be up to 100 days before feed gas volumes approach train capacity and become more consistent, a sign that first LNG production and the first commissioning cargo are imminent, according to RBN Energy. After the first cargo, feed gas flows can again become sporadic or stop completely as a partial or full shutdown is needed to make repairs and modifications.

“Once those issues are resolved and the facility comes back online, however, feed gas flows tend to be more or less consistent and run near train capacity and cargoes become more frequent,” RBN analyst Sheetal Nasta said.

That said, it can still be 50-100 days after the first cargo loads before the train is deemed substantially complete and approved to begin full operations. “This entire process can be further complicated by other factors, such as regulatory hiccups or the timing of related pipeline projects designed to supply the feed gas for the train,” Nasta said.

Earlier this month, Genscape Inc. analysts projected Cameron’s first train would achieve substantial production in mid-July.

Cameron is set to be the fifth export project expected to come online this year after Cheniere Energy Inc. received federal approval earlier in March to start commercial operations at its Corpus Christi facility in South Texas. The fifth train at Cheniere’s Sabine Pass export project in Louisiana also started service this month.

Meanwhile, Kinder Morgan Inc. is set to put into service the first of 10 trains at its Elba Island liquefaction facility in Georgia by the end of April. Management had expected the first unit to enter service by the end of March. Construction was halted twice because of hurricanes Florence and Michael last year. The in-service date of the remaining nine units is expected to follow sequentially, with one each month after the other, according to KMI.

The first train at the Freeport LNG export project in Texas is also due online later this year, with the next two trains expected in service by June 2020.

Gas Faces Weak Pricing

The impending start-up of Cameron LNG comes amid a downturn in global pricing. On Tuesday, major Asian LNG benchmarks closed in the $4.25-4.50 range, likely putting them out of the money versus Henry Hub at $2.75 plus roughly $2 in variable/transport costs, according to Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co. Inc. (TPH.)

Meanwhile in Europe, Dutch Title Transfer Facility (TTF) prices have been in freefall with storage volumes in the Netherlands and Germany at roughly 60% above five-year averages, the firm said. Europe-bound U.S. LNG cargoes should continue to move, however, as Tuesday's $4.72 still appears profitable versus Henry Hub plus variable/transport costs of around $1.50.

Societe Generale analysts also noted the convergence in TTF and Henry Hub pricing during a webinar Wednesday, and they earlier this month touted Europe’s emergence as a marginal player in the global LNG market. While the spread between the U.S. and European benchmarks has contracted significantly in the past couple of months, the firm sees some additional downside risk, albeit modest, for the Dutch hub in 2019.

“We see more downside than upside for TTF prices through the crux of 2019, however, we do highlight the potential for upside price pressure again in winter 19-20 under a cold-weather scenario,” Societe Generale natural gas analyst Breanne Dougherty said.

Meanwhile, Tuesday’s flow data indicated that U.S. LNG feed gas had fallen to 3.9 Bcf/d, 1.9 Bcf/d below last week's peak of 5.8 Bcf/d, according to the TPH. “It remains to be seen how much of this drop-off is strictly due to economics versus planned maintenance, but we do see risk to our 2019 LNG assumptions if weak pricing persists.”

Cheniere spokesman Evan Burnham-Synder told NGI on Wednesday the turnaround taking place at Sabine Pass trains 1-2 were part of its planned maintenance that it announced in February.

Nevertheless, U.S. LNG export facility utilization rates pose risk to pricing outlooks. While utilization of the current facilities has been maxed out, any sustained decline would be bearish for the gas market. Societe Generale is projecting an 85% utilization rate through the end of 2020 for U.S. export projects in operation, but noted that utilization rates below 80% were common in a loose global market.

“Utilization rates are something we’ll be watching closely over the next few months,” Dougherty said.

There are indications that tighter conditions are looming just around the corner. Current LNG strips have Asian markets back in the money in July, meaning it may just be 2Q2018 feed gas demand that is at risk, according to TPH. “That said, losing 2 Bcf/d of demand for the entirety of 2Q2018 would add roughly 180 Bcf to inventory levels.”

In the firm’s base case, it expects U.S. inventories peaking at 3,750 Bcf (plus-1% versus the five-year average); an incremental 180 Bcf would push peak storage toward the high end of the five-year range (plus 6%).

Storage aside, the U.S. gas market has entered a new era in which domestic considerations aren’t the only ones that matter. The significant LNG export capacity growth expected in the second half of 2019 and the first six months of 2020 underpins Societe Generale’s view of increased exposure of Henry Hub to volatility post-2019.

“Not only will a larger U.S. market be cycling through a same-size storage cushion, but the market will be newly exposed to the volatility of the wider global gas market, which is also vulnerable to weather and amidst a widespread demand growth phase,” Dougherty said.