In 2017, the global liquified natural gas (LNG) trade volumes surged to 295.1 million tonnes (MT), an increase of 35.2 MT over 2016. It was an all-time high for the LNG market, surpassing the previous high set in 2011 because of the Fukushima accident. The significant rise in trade was supported by an increase in LNG supply-driven projects in the U.S. and Australia. Australia supplemented LNG production by about 10 MT in 2017. The production increase in the U.S. was supported by a corresponding increase in LNG supply by the Sabine Pass LNG, which added about 10.2 MT in 2017.
Key Drivers of LNG Demand
Asia continues to be the key driver of the global LNG demand due to a significant increase in the demand from China. This increase was majorly supported by the stringent environmental policies designed to promote the switch to gas. The other key countries driving the global LNG demand are Pakistan, Turkey, South Korea and Spain. The global market continues to witness a substantial increase in LNG trade from the Pacific Basin, with intra-Pacific trade reaching a record 125 MT, shaped by Chinese demand and LNG production in Australia.
The changing dynamics are resulting in the entry of new suppliers and buyers in the gas business. The surging demand for natural gas has been increasing the role of spot LNG. However, the absence of a globally accepted pricing mechanism and lack of gas-to-gas competition are still major impediments. In recent years, especially after 2014, the global LNG market has evolved and transformed into a vertically integrated market.
The global market has been witnessing a significant trend of increasing competition between economies such as Australia, Russia and the U.S. to become the largest LNG exporting country. The Middle East continues with its five-year reign as the largest exporting region accounting for 38 percent of the total exports. However, new supply from Australia and elsewhere in Asia-Pacific has narrowed the gap significantly, decreasing the Middle East’s market share from 40 percent to 38 percent. Still, Qatar continues to be the world’s largest exporter, providing nearly one-third of the global LNG supply.
Increase in Global LNG Trade
In the wake of the continuous growth seen in recent years, global LNG trade has increased significantly in 2017 by about 35.2 MT. This was the fourth consecutive year of incremental growth and the second largest annual increase after 2010. The increase was majorly supported by higher production at liquefaction plants in Australia as well as the Sabin Pass LNG in the U.S. Although there were doubts about the market’s ability to absorb a significant increase in LNG supply, global trade was supported by a series of increases in demand throughout the year, as there was positive economic growth throughout the global markets.
While India and Egypt shared the spotlight with China in 2016 as key drivers of the global LNG trade, China showed a substantial increase of LNG imports during 2017. Also, in the Asia-Pacific region, South Korea emerged as the second-largest LNG importer, with LNG demand reinforced by the power sector throughout the year and summing to 38.6 MT, a significant increase by 4.9 MT from 2016.
Increase in Supply Set to Continue
Supply is set to continue its rapid growth in 2018 as new plants and additional LNG trains across the globe would come online. However, in 2018, the demand growth in China may not be same as in 2017. Strong fundamentals will continue to support the growth of the markets extending from the Middle East to Southeast Asia. The European market will result in additional LNG deliveries owing to the sufficient natural gas infrastructures in countries such as Spain, the United Kingdom and France.
Spot, Medium and Long-Term Trade
Historically, LNG has been primarily traded under long-term and fixed destination contracts. The increased use of flexible-destination contracts coupled with the rise of portfolio players and traders has increased the acceptance of spot LNG trade. The other factors that increased the spot LNG trade are shocks such as the Fukushima crisis and shale gas revolution in the United States. Short-term LNG witnessed a significant growth, accounting for 21 percent of the total gross traded LNG in 2017. Despite a decline in LNG price differentials across the market, the short-term trade increased by 4.1 MT primarily due to the commissioning of new LNG plants and the emergence of several new importers.
Pure LNG spot trade, where cargoes are delivered within three months of the transaction date and total gross trade, are the categories of LNG traded on a yearly contract. In 2017, the spot LNG trade accounted for 29 percent of the total gross trade while it accounted for only 8 percent of the volumes in 2005.
The drivers behind the success of spot trade are:
- LNG contracts with destination flexibility, facilitating diversions to higher-priced markets
- Rise in the number of exporters and importers increased the complexity of the industry and introduced new business dynamics.
The supply and demand of LNG is influenced by various factors such as weather conditions, seasonality, delay in domestic production, price and availability of substitute fuels, and increasing demand for cleaner and safer fuel. The short-term and spot LNG trade offers the flexibility to cover the gaps caused by the supply shortages and arbitrage LNG prices.
LNG prices across the markets began to converge in 2015 as various factors applied downward pressure on prices. Natural gas prices in North America are largely set at trading hubs, the most important of which is the Henry Hub in Louisiana. In Europe, the wholesale gas is traded mainly via long-term contracts. These contracts consider gas hub-based or oil-linked pricing, and often both. In the absence of established and liquid gas trading markets in Asia and many emerging markets, the LNG price is set via oil-linkages, supplemented by a smaller share of spot imports. The Fukushima disaster led to a significant surge in global oil price benchmarks, crude oil-linked and hike in spot LNG prices during the 2012-2014 period, which kept trade between the two basins high.
However, with an about 50 percent decline in oil prices in late 2014, traditionally crude oil-linked prices in Europe and Asia also dropped. Generally, oil-indexed contracts have a 3-6-month time lag against the crude oil price.
In North America, market fundamentals impacted natural gas price movements compared to the crude oil price. Moreover, Henry Hub prices are expected to be primarily determined by demand-supply basics on the back of improved pipeline access to growing Marcellus shale and Utica shale production and prices competition with coal or renewables in the power sector, putting pressure on prices. For the first time in last 15 years, Henry Hub prices averaged below US$3 MMBtu, with an annual average of US$2.61/MMBtu in 2015 and about US$ 2.9/MMBtu in 2017. Lower oil prices have also decreased the spread between oil-linked and US LNG contracts in the near term.
However, the low US gas prices and downside market fundamentals risks may force US LNG players to offer gas at a reduced price to buyers over the next few years until the end of 2018-2019. The United States is expected to become a net exporter of total energy by 2020s in large part because of a significant increase in natural gas exports. The growth of natural gas exports, particularly from new LNG terminals, will sustain continued growth in the U.S. natural gas production. Natural gas production is projected to grow at an annual average of 4 percent through 2020.
- Global LNG Database (InfraInsights)
- Exxon Mobil’s latest Outlook for Energy: A View to 2040
- Report, India’s Energy Security — Ernst & Young, 2015