Asia is the world’s largest consumer of liquefied natural gas (LNG), accounting for three-quarters of global LNG trade and one-third of total global natural gas trade. However, the region lacks a pricing benchmark that can reliably reflect supply and demand changes in Asia’s natural gas markets.
Natural gas market hubs, such as Louisiana’s Henry Hub or the United Kingdom’s National Balancing Point (NBP), have been a key feature of competitive gas markets in the United States and Europe. These hubs provide locations—either physical, in the case of Henry Hub, or virtual, in the case of NBP—for trading natural gas and ultimately for determining price. The most important hubs have publicly reported price indexes that are benchmarks for the value of natural gas in the larger regional market.
Currently, no location in Asia has sufficiently developed physical infrastructure or regulatory frameworks to accommodate the creation of a natural gas trading hub, but the governments of Japan, China, and Singapore are each exploring the possibility of establishing an LNG market hub. Given the emergence of the United States as a major LNG supplier and the potential impact on the structure of future LNG trade in Asia, EIA commissioned a contractor study that examines efforts to establish regional LNG trading hubs and price benchmarks in Asia and some of the inherent challenges they face.
Fully established natural gas market hubs, such as the United States’ Henry Hub, have high liquidity, with a high volume of trades; open access to transport facilities; and transparent price and volume reporting, index pricing, and futures contracting. In comparison, hubs such as those in France and Italy have lower trading volumes and less liquidity in forward pricing.
While natural gas hubs in North America and Europe are pipeline-based (for example, Henry Hub is located in Louisiana, close to natural gas infrastructure on the U.S. Gulf Coast), major countries in Asia rely on LNG as the primary source of natural gas.
LNG-based hubs present a number of challenges compared to pipeline-based hubs. Pipeline hubs rely on continuous flows of natural gas, daily scheduling of receipts and deliveries, standardized natural gas specifications, uniform transportation and contracting rules, and diligent regulatory oversight. In contrast, LNG shipments can be large and difficult to store, there can be significant time between contracting and delivery, and cargoes can differ in LNG specifications. Asian LNG import terminals have limited pipeline interconnectivity and operate primarily under long-term bilateral contracts between multiple suppliers and buyers, which limits transparency, third-party access, and publically available price benchmarks.
In 2016, the Japanese government developed a comprehensive strategy to liberalize its domestic natural gas market and launched major initiatives to encourage private-sector participation in the development of an LNG trading hub and a pricing index. In addition, Japan, China, and Singapore have established benchmark LNG pricing indexes.
For the next few years, LNG indexes will likely remain the most reliable indicators of natural gas market value in Asia. As existing LNG price surveys continue to improve in accuracy and increase their significance as indicators of the market price for LNG and as reliable hub-based price indexes emerge, indexes will be more reliably used to not only set the pricing for sales and purchase contracts, but also to serve as the basis for greater volumes of futures and derivatives trading.
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Headline crude prices for the week beginning 11 March 2019 – Brent: US$66/b; WTI: US$56/b
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In 2017, Norway’s Government Pension Fund Global – also known as the Oil Fund – proposed a complete divestment of oil and gas shares from its massive portfolio. Last week, the Norwegian government partially approved that request, allowing the Fund to exclude 134 upstream companies from the wealth fund. Players like Anadarko Petroleum, Chesapeake Energy, CNOOC, Premier Oil, Soco International and Tullow Oil will now no longer receive any investment from the Fund. That might seem like an inconsequential move, but it isn’t. With over US$1 trillion in assets – the Fund is the largest sovereign wealth fund in the world – it is a major market-shifting move.
Estimates suggest that the government directive will require the Oil Fund to sell some US$7.5 billion in stocks over an undefined period. Shares in the affected companies plunged after the announcement. The reaction is understandable. The Oil Fund holds over 1.3% of all global stocks and shares, including 2.3% of all European stocks. It holds stakes as large as of 2.4% of Royal Dutch Shell and 2.3% of BP, and has long been seen as a major investor and stabilising force in the energy sector.
It is this impression that the Fund is trying to change. Established in 1990 to invest surplus revenues of the booming Norwegian petroleum sector, prudent management has seen its value grow to some US$200,000 per Norwegian citizen today. Its value exceeds all other sovereign wealth funds, including those of China and Singapore. Energy shares – specifically oil and gas firms – have long been a major target for investment due to high returns and bumper dividends. But in 2017, the Fund recommended phasing out oil exploration from its ‘investment universe’. At the time, this was interpreted as yielding to pressure from environmental lobbies, but the Fund has made it clear that the move is for economic reasons.
Put simply, the Fund wants to move away from ‘putting all its eggs in one basket’. Income from Norway’s vast upstream industry – it is the largest producing country in Western Europe – funds the country’s welfare state and pays into the Fund. It has ethical standards – avoiding, for example, investment in tobacco firms – but has concluded that devoting a significant amount of its assets to oil and gas savings presents a double risk. During the good times, when crude prices are high and energy stocks booming, it is a boon. But during a downturn or a crash, it is a major risk. With typical Scandinavian restraint and prudence, the Fund has decided that it is best to minimise that risk by pouring its money into areas that run counter-cyclical to the energy industry.
However, the retreat is just partial. Exempt from the divestment will be oil and gas firms with significant renewable energy divisions – which include supermajors like Shell, BP and Total. This is touted as allowing the Fund to ride the crest of the renewable energy wave, but also manages to neatly fit into the image that Norway wants to project: balancing a major industry with being a responsible environmental steward. It’s the same reason why Equinor – in which the Fund holds a 67% stake – changed its name from Statoil, to project a broader spectrum of business away from oil into emerging energies like wind and solar. Because, as the Fund’s objective states, one day the oil will run out. But its value will carry on for future generations.
The Norway Oil Fund in a Nutshell