U.S. liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports hit a record high in March of 6.64 million tons (Mt), according to market research firm Kpler, capping a volatile winter in which brutally cold weather across the northern hemisphere both increased demand and disrupted operations. 

Kpler said U.S. exports in March finished 2.26 Mt higher than February, when an Arctic blast hit the Gulf Coast upending shipping, liquefaction and upstream operations that cut into cargo loadings. March offtake was 1.54 Mt higher than the year-ago period. 

The firm said last month’s exports were also on par with Qatar (7.12 Mt) and Australia (7.41 Mt), the world’s top two LNG exporters, respectively. 

The third train at Cheniere Energy Inc.’s Corpus Christi LNG export terminal in South Texas, which was completed last month and placed into commercial service, has added 4.5 Mt/year to the country’s liquefaction capacity, which is set to increase overall to 71 Mt this year, according to Kpler.

“Year-to-date, 2021 has been a boon to producers in a reversal off lows from last summer when record numbers of cargoes were cancelled due to Covid-19 demand disruptions,” Kpler analysts said of U.S. operations. 

Heading into the summer and beyond, the outlook remains strong. Over the next 12 months, U.S. exports should average about 8.96 Bcf/d, up from 6.38 Bcf/d over the previous 12-month period, according to Bloomberg and NGI calculations. 

The forward curve shows the Japan-Korea Marker (JKM) and Title Transfer Facility (TTF) benchmarks both well above $6/MMBtu through the summer and into fall. Maximum Gulf Coast netbacks to key markets in Asia and Europe are trending at more than $3 above Henry Hub futures over the same time, according to NGI data

Asian demand drove U.S. exports over the winter, particularly in January when spot prices in the region topped $30/MMBtu. Kpler said U.S. exports to Asia that month hit a record 4.05 Mt, with about 1.89 Mt traded on spot as buyers in the region scrambled to meet demand amid a historic cold snap. 

That diverted cargoes away from Europe, leaving inventories short there as the shoulder season gets underway. 

“In total, U.S. departures towards Europe finished January at just 1.24 Mt, a decline of some 1.63 Mt against year earlier levels, easily marking the largest ever y/y decline,” Kpler said. 

European storage inventories stood at just 31% of capacity on Thursday, well below the five-year average. Demand on the continent is expected to remain elevated as stocks will need to be replenished, Kpler said. 

In fact, Europe helped drive gains in March, when U.S. exports to the continent finished at 2.4 Mt and accounted for 36% of all U.S. departures, according to Kpler’s current estimates. 

Demand in Asia also remains strong. JKM jumped by about 10% last month on higher TTF prices and stronger-than-anticipated demand from China, Japan and South Korea given warmer weather at the onset of spring. Buyers in the region are also working to refill inventories. 

Since April started, NGI data show that LNG feed gas deliveries to U.S. terminals have remained exceptionally strong at nearly 12 Bcf/d. Nominations dipped below 10 Bcf/d on Thursday, when the Corpus Christi Pipeline was impacted by an annual emergency test at its Sinton Compressor station. The event was expected to dent feed gas deliveries to the export terminal by nearly 1 Bcf/d on Thursday only, according to Wood Mackenzie. 

Kpler also noted that feed gas deliveries to U.S. export terminals could drop off this month as facilities undergo routine spring maintenance.