U.S. Could Follow Australia in Singing Export Blues on Gas

  • Japan paid less for Australian gas than Australians in July
  • U.S. Senators ask Energy Department to slow export approval

Americans wondering what life with liquefied natural gas exports will bring can look to eastern Australia for a worst-case scenario.

As Australia is set to overtake Qatar as the world’s largest exporter of LNG, its domestic market is showing growing vulnerability to price spikes. In July, with cool weather boosting heating demand, Australians in the southern state of Victoria paid more for domestic gas than customers in Japan did for super-chilled Australian gas shipped 4,400 miles (7,000 kilometers) on tankers.

The reason: Exports are locked into set production systems and long-term contracts that can’t be easily adjusted, and companies get a premium for the international deals they arrange. Now, with U.S. consumers increasingly dependent on natural gas as coal and nuclear plants disappear, lawmakers and energy analysts say the country may also be at risk as U.S. exports reach 13.5 billion cubic feet a day in 2020.

In the U.S. “you’ve got industrial demand, power demand and export demand that we’ve never seen before, all of which poses significant upside risk to prices,” said Jason Schenker, president of Prestige Economics LLC in Austin, Texas, in a telephone interview. “Power and gas prices are going up. Enjoy it while it’s cheap.”

Almost three-dozen tankers have left the American Gulf Coast since the first cargo of shale LNG set sail in late February. Cheniere Energy Inc., which owns the only terminal now open in the continental U.S., is in the process of doubling its output and will continue to expand next year.

At the same time, the U.S. sent a record 3.6 billion cubic feet a day in July through pipelines into Mexico.

The end result: U.S. gas prices more than doubled from this year’s low to more than $3 per million British thermal units in October as America’s power generators, burning a record amount of the fuel, nearly wiped out a national surplus. Gas added 0.6 percent to $3.085 at 9:25 a.m. in New York.

U.S. lawmakers have noticed.

Last month, a dozen U.S. senators, including Democrats Al Franken of Minnesota and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, asked the Energy Department to slow LNG export approvals until it can investigate impacts on domestic prices. The request comes as the agency has requests in hand for projects to export more than 53 billion cubic feet of LNG a day, and has approved 15.2 billion. 

Five terminals are already under construction with the next opening -- by Dominion Resources Inc. in Maryland -- set for the end of 2017.

Continuing to ratchet up approvals could “put us on a path towards higher energy prices for families and businesses here at home,” Franken said in an e-mail Thursday. “I want the Energy Department to put the brakes on new LNG exports until we know the full impact of currently approved exports.”

1989 Start-Up

In Australia, the first LNG exports were shipped out in 1989. Now, the country has seven operating plants and three more under construction. Australia is set to surpass Qatar as the world’s largest exporter of LNG by 2018, according to BMI Research.

Some Australians, already seeing price spikes in their country, are expressing similar concerns to those of the U.S. lawmakers.

Wholesale gas prices in Victoria, the only actively-traded market in the country, rose as high as $17 per million British thermal units in July, and prices averaged $8.38 for the month, according to the Australian Energy Markets Operator. Japanese imports of Australian LNG cost an average of $6.63 that month, according to LNG Japan Corp.

The Australian Industry Group, which represents 60,000 local businesses, said gas prices have risen and made domestic industry less competitive because of exports. Santos Ltd., which operates the Gladstone LNG export project about 530 kilometers (330 miles) north of Brisbane, said last month that it’s having to buy gas from the domestic market to ship abroad after its own drilling didn’t produce enough to meet its contractual needs.

"It’s the worst of all worlds," said Tennant Reed, a spokesman for the Australian Industry Group. "Exports have disappointed in value, and domestic users are still taking it in the neck through higher prices."

Ban Blamed

Energy industry advocates in Australia have defended gas exporters, saying the projects have spurred new drilling that has in many cases developed fresh supplies for local markets. They blamed the price spike, at least partly, on a government ban against on-shore drilling.

"The LNG plants have brought on huge investment in onshore gas production in Queensland, which cannot only fuel our export opportunities which over time are going to be very valuable to Australia but also provide necessary gas to domestic markets," said Martin Ferguson, the country’s former energy minister and a former non-executive director of BG Group, now a part of Royal Dutch Shell.

The U.S. has an added line of defense. Australian LNG exporters contract to send gas directly to foreign customers with specific destinations, while U.S. exporters only sell the right to buy U.S. gas and chill it in their plants for loading. That means if U.S. prices ever rise above those in Asia or Europe, the exports can just stop.

Producers are also driving “tremendous productivity gains” that will make it profitable to extract shale fuel at even lower U.S. gas prices, but it will take about a year for that to kick in, according to Francisco Blanch, head of commodities research at Bank of America Corp.

Meanwhile, ‘in the next few months the trend is pretty clear," said Blanch, who is based in New York. “Demand is going to go up pretty quickly and supply is limited. If we get another cold winter we are going to get pretty strong prices in gas.”

In a twist, supply shortages and hefty price spikes for industrial gas users on Australia’s east coast, following the start up of export plants in Queensland state, may result in that nation importing U.S. LNG, Neil Beveridge, a Hong Kong-based analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co., said in a research note. Australian buyers effectively must compete with international oil linked prices for gas supply because exporters have contractual commitments with oil linked pricing, he said.

“It would not surprise us in the slightest to see a floating regas and storage unit deployed somewhere offshore Sydney Harbour in the near future,” wrote Beveridge.

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