Tanker's U-Turn Shows How Shale Is Changing World Gas Trade

(Bloomberg) -- A cargo of chilled natural gas hauled from Louisiana in late December has become a symbol of how global trade is changing for a fuel increasingly seen as a cheap, cleaner-burning option for countries from Latin America to China and India.

The tanker Maran Gas Achilles passed through the Panama Canal and was headed toward Asia at a speed of 20 knots when, suddenly, it made a sharp u-turn in the Pacific. Next stop: Mexico’s Manzanillo terminal on the southwest coast, where it unloaded.

The abrupt route change shows how the U.S., which began shale gas exports just last year, is creating a new paradigm in an industry that once revolved almost entirely around long-term contracts with set destinations. As the new kid on the block, exporters of U.S. liquefied natural gas -- led by Cheniere Energy Inc. and Royal Dutch Shell SA -- are seeking the best price at any given time. As U.S. exports grow, it’s a strategy that could shift the economics of LNG toward an emerging spot market akin to oil.

“The U.S. puts gas into places on short notice at a good price,” said Jason Feer, head of business intelligence at ship broker Poten & Partners Inc., in a telephone interview. “It’s been flexible. The market’s becoming more short term and the U.S. has been very effective at meeting those needs.”

The U.S. stands to become the world’s third-largest exporter by 2020, when it’s expected to ship about 8.3 billion cubic feet a day of capacity, or 14 percent of the world’s share, according to London-based consultant Energy Aspects Ltd. That growth is a testament to the power of the shale boom of the last decade, helping to reduce the country’s reliance on foreign energy sources.

Supply Glut

U.S. natural gas futures were up 3.2 percent to $2.913 per million British thermal units at 9:54 a.m. on the New York Mercantile Exchange, compared with the latest assessed spot LNG price in Singapore of $5.652 as of Monday.

Drilling technologies such as hydraulic fracturing have made it profitable to tap vast resources of carbon fuels trapped in rock thousands of feet below the surface. The results: A natural gas supply glut stuck stubbornly in place since mid-2015, and billions of dollars redirected toward new export facilities by Cheniere,  Dominion Resources Inc., Kinder Morgan Inc. and others.

Breanne Dougherty, a natural gas analyst for Societe Generale SA in New York, calls the U.S. push into the global LNG market “an inarguable game changer.”

Having gas delivery that isn’t fixed by destination represents a new type of supply that will undoubtedly lead to more flexible contracts being signed elsewhere around the world, according to Dougherty. U.S. terminals made another key break from the global norm by pricing LNG off of the country’s benchmark Henry Hub in Louisiana instead of tying it to the price of oil, she said.

First to Ship

Cheniere, which built the Sabine Pass terminal in Louisiana, was the first to ship shale gas abroad. The Houston-based company is now in the process of starting up its third plant and is expected to own 7 percent of the world’s export capacity in 2020, according to Energy Aspects.

In its debut year, Cheniere shipped 56 cargoes to 17 countries, including Mexico, China, and India. Last week, it reported its first quarterly earnings gain since 2010.

“We continue to be pleasantly surprised by the speed and magnitude” of demand, said Anatol Feygin, Cheniere’s chief commercial officer, during a conference call last week. “China and India underscored their potential to quickly increase LNG demand and tighten global markets.”

Just a year ago, Cheniere was at CERAWeek by IHS Markit, the energy industry’s yearly get-together in Houston, to talk about the launch of its first tanker from Sabine Pass.

Fegyin is scheduled to present at this year’s meeting on Wednesday, a week after the company’s announcement that it has secured its first deal to tap Canadian shale to supply its LNG production, expanding its influence as one of North America’s largest gas buyers.


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