Spot-market LNG prices have buyers seeking more options

It’s just shy of six years ago when spot-market prices for liquefied natural gas in Asia hit a record $20 per million British thermal units and a cargo aboard a standard-size LNG carrier cost almost $65 million.

That same volume of LNG would cost less than $13 million today, or around $4 per million Btu.

Spot-market buyers paid more than long-term customers during the post-Fukushima, tight-supply price spikes of 2012-14, but the roles are reversed during today’s weak market conditions.

It’s a matter of supply and demand driving spot prices, while long-term LNG contracts are linked to oil prices that are detached from LNG market conditions.

In July, Japanese utilities paid an average $4.70 per million Btu for spot LNG cargoes amid an oversupplied market, according to trade ministry data, about half the price those same utilities paid for gas under long-term contracts linked to oil prices.

Tokyo Gas and electric utilities in Hokkaido, Tohoku, Kyushu and Hokuriku regions have all said they are looking at ways to take advantage of cheaper spot LNG, Reuters reported Aug. 9. But they are limited in the number of cargoes they can take because most of their supply comes under long-term take-or-pay contracts.

Oil-linked LNG contracts around the world vary, ranging from about 11 to 15 percent of the price of a barrel of crude averaged over the past six months to five years. When oil was $120 several years ago, contract buyers paid dearly for their LNG.

But nothing linked to oil can compete with $4 spot-market gas. The low prices are pushing utilities in Japan to get more aggressive in the price reviews allowed under their long-term contracts, according to multiple news reports. The five- or 10-year reviews are built into many of the contracts.

“Price-review negotiations are becoming more intense,” Thanasis Kofinakos, head of Wood Mackenzie’s Asia-Pacific gas and LNG consulting, told Reuters in early August.

According to Reuters, Japan’s second-biggest city-gas company, Osaka Gas, is in arbitration with ExxonMobil’s LNG project in Papua New Guinea after failing to win a reduction in prices during a price review.

However, there is a risk in negotiating for a new pricing structure in long-term contracts — what happens the next time the market flips and oil-linked LNG is cheaper than spot sales? Utilities would need to accept the risk that spot prices could surge in tight markets, Hirofumi Sato, Tokyo Gas general manager of financial management, said during an earnings news conference.

Besides, it’s not easy for the utilities to gamble on market pricing swings, as they have long favored stability of supply over price.

Still, Tokyo Gas is looking for ways to take advantage of cheaper spot prices, including buying up more gas and storing it for the peak winter season, Sato said.

Another tactic is to scale back purchases within the limit of what’s allowed under their contracts. Some buyers in Japan and China are seeking to delay shipments or reduce volumes under their contracts from the Ichthys LNG project in Australia, an Inpex executive told Reuters Aug. 8. Inpex is the Japanese oil and gas producer that operates Ichthys.

If the money-saving spot prices persist, India’s top gas importer Petronet LNG will look to renegotiate more of its oil-linked supply deals, its managing director said Aug. 8. “You don’t have much of a choice,” Prabhat Singh told Reuters.

Petronet is paying $8.25 to $9.50 per million Btu under its long-term contracts with Qatar’s RasGas and for cargoes from ExxonMobil’s share of the Gorgon project in Australia, Singh said. The company renegotiated new price deals in other contracts in 2015 and 2017.

No doubt Petronet is aware that Indian Oil Corp. bought a spot cargo for delivery in the second half of August from commodity trader Trafigura at $3.69 per million Btu. China National Offshore Oil Corp. bought a cargo for delivery in early September from trader Vitol at $3.90.

As new LNG supply comes into the global market amid weaker demand growth, the volume of spot cargoes is growing, adding to the soft prices. Spot- and short-term trades comprised one-third of the market in 2018, the International Group of LNG Importers said in its 2019 annual report. It was 1.5 percent in 1997 and 8.9 percent in 2003.

There is so much low-cost LNG available that traders are starting to look at booking vessels to store LNG at sea as they bet on winter demand to boost prices, according to multiple news reports.

If October and November spot prices are 90 cents higher than August prices, “floating storage is starting to make sense … and at $1.50 people will be jumping on it,” a Singapore-based LNG trader told Reuters.

Another factor is the steady return of Japan’s nuclear-power fleet over the next three years. Nine nuclear plants are back online, with 14 more expected in the next few years, leading a shift in demand away from imported LNG. S&P Global Platts estimates the issue of over-contracting for LNG will emerge this year among Japanese utilities. The situation could peak in 2020, with the over-contracted volumes reaching 19.5 million tonnes.

Europe is buying more LNG, but has its limits. There is increasing concern Europe’s gas storage could hit “tank tops” by the end of summer, putting more downside pressure on prices, Reuters reports. Storage sites at some key hubs in the Netherlands and Austria are already more than 95 percent full, Refinitiv data shows.

U.K. and Dutch gas prices, benchmarks for European gas sales, have lost half their value since last September. They hit 10-year lows in June, knocked down by an influx of LNG imports and pipeline gas from Russia.

Continued oversupply, coupled with new liquefaction capacity coming online in the U.S., Australia, Russia and Mozambique, could cause developers to rethink their schedules. “We may see some delays in final investment decisions in new LNG projects given the current market environment,” Inpex Senior Managing Executive Officer Masahiro Murayama said in an earnings call.

Larry Persily is a former Alaska journalist, state and federal official who has long tracked oil and gas markets and projects worldwide. He is the incoming Atwood Chair of Journalism at the University of Alaska Anchorage School of Journalism and Public Communication.

Updated: 
08/14/2019 - 8:58am

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