Liquefied natural gas sellers from Qatar to Malaysia, that dominated gas sales to Asia for years, are facing the prospect of rising American exports. While less than 30 U.S. cargoes have landed in Asia, their effect was felt even before they arrived. LNG trade in 2016 jumped the most in five years, contract lengths were sliced in half in the past decade, and spot prices slumped more than 60% in the past three years.
That means the global LNG titans gathering in Tokyo this week for Gastech are in the midst of the biggest shakeup since the industry was founded in the 1960s. Just as American crude is increasingly making its way to Asia, the world’s biggest oil market, the burgeoning armada of gas cargoes from the U.S. and elsewhere are poking holes in the financial system on which the industry’s multi-billion plants are funded.
“As U.S. exports ramp up, we’re going to see even more flexibility with more people trying to buy and trade volumes. The old models of stable long-term contracts will really have to change,” said Zhi Xin Chong, a gas analyst for Wood Mackenzie in Singapore. “We’ve already seen the impact of U.S. LNG on contract trends, with more destination flexibility coming into play.”
Since the 1960s, when projects in Algeria and Alaska started chilling natural gas to temperatures colder than the dark side of the moon, the LNG trade was as simple as the industry’s engineering was complex. Energy companies borrowed heavily to develop gas fields and build liquefaction plants, and to pay off the debt they signed decades-long contracts with electric utilities to buy the fuel at a fraction of the price of oil.
Now, with hydraulic fracturing lowering production costs, U.S. exporters are setting the price of LNG based on natural gas trades at Henry Hub in Louisiana. They’re also eliminating destination restrictions that require ships arrive at a specific port, which most previous contracts included, meaning traders can buy cargoes and flip them to whatever market needs them the most.