TC Energy Corp. will seek “bite-sized” expansion opportunities across its North American natural gas pipeline network in 2020 and beyond, as the Calgary-based pipeline operator simultaneously faces record demand from customers and an increasingly difficult environment for getting large projects built, executives said Tuesday during the annual investor day.

“Our pipelines are experiencing record demand, the likes of which I’ve never seen before,” said President Stan Chapman, who oversees U.S. natural gas pipelines.

Eight of TC’s 13 U.S. gas pipelines “are essentially 100% fully contracted,” while the Columbia Gas Transmission LLC pipeline is about 93% contracted.

The U.S. pipeline network now connects to five liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminals, and there are plans to connect to three more, Chapman said. About one-third of LNG exports from the Lower 48 flow through TC pipes, he said. Going forward, that share is expected to increase to 40-45% of exports.

TC plans to pursue “small-scale debottlenecking to make sure that we are optimizing the flow of gas across all of our assets,” Chapman said. “As it stands right now, each of our 13 different pipelines in the U.S. has some sort of a different growth project going on, either in origination or in execution…”

Growth opportunities are to mostly comprise “in-corridor, compression type expansions” that can feasibly obtain the necessary permits and be built, he said.

With four rate cases scheduled for 2022, “We’re going to carefully optimize the regulatory process to take advantage of the ability to potentially file rate cases sooner, to make sure that we’re recovering the maintenance capital in a prudent timeframe.

“Notwithstanding the headwinds that our industry faces, our pipelines are experiencing unprecedented demand, and we expect that to continue into the future.”

Chapman said the goal is for the U.S. network to be “a catcher’s mitt to transport all the growing” gas volumes from the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin (WCSB), “as well as opportunities between the U.S. and Mexico....

“Throughout all of our pipeline system we’re seeing unprecedented demand going forward,” he said. About 93% of the company’s revenues come from long-term, take-or-pay contracts with high utilization.

In Canada, TC plans to focus on expanding the offtake capacity for gas produced in the WCSB, which Tracy Robinson, president of Canadian gas pipelines, said is competitive across North America and beyond.

Through expansions of the Nova Gas Transmission Ltd. pipeline system, and construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline to the LNG Canada terminal underway on British Columbia’s coast, TC plans by 2023 to grow the WCSB market, currently about 12 Bcf/d, by another 5.6 Bcf/d, Robinson said.

While TC’s U.S. and Canada pipelines are running at or near capacity, Mexico is a different story, according to Francois Poirier, who oversees the Mexico business. The two TC pipelines in northwest Mexico are being utilized at rates in “the mid 50s in one system and the mid 70s on the other,” he said.

“And on our systems in central Mexico, we’re more in the 25-40% range, depending on the system, and obviously we’ll be looking to increase that,” said Poirier. He said “there’s plenty of room to add connectivity.”

Now that the 2.6 Bcf/d Sur de Texas-Tuxpan pipeline has entered service, of which TC owns 50%, “I’m very optimistic that we’re going to be able to add load here.”

TC has received gas marketing permits from Mexico’s Comisión Reguladora de Energía, Poirier noted.

“Low risk gas marketing opportunities are available to provide potential customers with bundled commodity and transportation services,” he said. “This would promote utilization of our existing assets across the region and drive original, organic growth.”

Over the long-term, Mexico’s Pacific coast appears to be a logical choice for an LNG export terminal, “and our port area in Topolobampo is the shortest path to connect abundant Texas natural gas to Asian markets,” he said. “On a very preliminary basis, we’re in conversations with many LNG project proponents to that effect.”