By Michael J. Economides
It takes a visionary (Sharif Souki), a surfeit of US natural gas and a 4-to-1 price disparity between what the US and what other people pay and you have the makings of perhaps, if not the biggest certainly part of the biggest, energy stories for some time.
The just announced 20 year contract between BG and Cheniere to export 3.5 million tons of liquid natural gas (LNG) – a little over 500 million standard cubic feet per day- from the United States to foreign destinations is one of those announcements that was logical to make but had to actually be made and it will open the floodgates to others before too long.
Cheniere was one of the first to recognize a decade ago that LNG was the great unifier between natural gas sources and markets. A small E&P operator but with an expansive and imaginative CEO in Sharif Souki, the company recognized early on that LNG was the only answer to the apparent natural gas price disparities evident during the entire history of the commodity. While oil is $100 in Midland Texas, Caracas, London or Moscow, natural gas varies from $1 to $25 per thousand standard cubic feet (Mcf), depending where and from whom to whom.
At the time it was the United States the obvious would-be receiver of LNG. Forecasts by the National Petroleum Council in 1996 showed that the US would be using 24.4 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of natural gas by 2006 and 25.2 Tcf by 2008. The US production was about 18.9 Tcf (of a total consumption of 22 Tcf) and falling, rapidly. In 2003, then Fed Chairman, Alan Greenspan labeled LNG as “the only answer” to the looming US natural gas shortages. Natural gas prices were going only up with a price of $10 per Mcf actually hitting the Henry Hub in 2006.
At the time natural gas seemed to be the king. Emissions were raising their head as defining influences and coal was on the retreat. Power generation was to have a radical makeover.
Souki made then the fateful decision to go all out on building LNG accepting facilities, regasification terminals which were supposed to accept LNG and after re-vaporizing it into gas to inject it into the US domestic system. (Disclaimer: the author was instrumental in advising Cheniere then to locate the LNG terminals in Texas with much friendlier regulatory and logistical environment than the demand centers of the US Eastern Seaboard.)
Among other projects Cheniere built the largest regasification terminal in the world, a 4 billion cubic feet (Bcf) per day facility at Sabine Pass, on the border between Texas and Louisiana.
But things did not happen as expected. Coal refused to die, aided by both rational reasons and a strong lobby. By 2006 actual natural gas demand remained essentially stagnant at less than 22 Tcf, of which 18 Tcf was produced in the United States and the rest, imported mostly from Canada.
More to the point, starting at that time shale gas, arguably the other biggest story in the US oil and gas industry in the last quarter century took off. By 2010 domestic production climbed to almost 22 Tcf of natural gas, almost 30 percent of it from shale gas. The state of the art Sabine Pass terminal received precious few LNG cargoes since its inauguration in 2008.
Helped by the economic slowdown prices plummeted to about $4 per Mcf. The irony is that Europeans have been paying at least $8 to Russian monopoly and many Asian contracts climbed to $17 per Mcf.
Exporting LNG from the United States became the new “only answer” for both the producers’ predicament but also the obvious: with LNG connectivity it makes no sense for such price disparities. I wrote about this repeatedly and it was Cheniere’s position I had in mind. It was obvious that a relatively effortless technological tweak in already permitted facilities could convert the hitherto regasification terminals to the liquefaction facilities now required to reverse the flow from the United States to export locations.
It was just a matter of time and the time has just come. By 2015 Cheniere will be exporting LNG and this announced contract will not be the last one.
Michael Economides is Editor-in-Chief of the Energy Tribune