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Last Updated: March 28, 2017
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Gas & LNG
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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.uploads1490660932624-chart2.png


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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May, 24 2022
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May, 20 2022
High Oil Prices and Indonesia’s Ban on Oil Palm Exports

Supply chains are currently in crisis. They have been for a long time now, ever since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic reshaped the way the world works. Stressed shipping networks and operational blockages – coupled with China’s insistence on a Covid-zero policy – means that cargo tanker rates are at an all-time high and that there just aren’t enough of them. McDonalds and KFCs in Asia are running out of French fries to sell, not because there aren’t enough potatoes in Idaho, but because there aren’t enough ships to deliver them to Japan or to Singapore from Los Angeles. The war in Ukraine has placed a particular emphasis on food supply chains by disrupting global wheat and sunflower oil supply chains and kicking off distressingly high levels of food price inflation across North Africa, the Middle East and Asia. It was against this backdrop that Indonesia announced a complete ban on palm oil exports. That nuclear option shocked the markets, set off a potential new supply chain crisis and has particular implications on future of crude oil pricing and biofuels in Asia.  

A brief recap. Like most of Asia, Indonesia has been grappling with food price inflation as consequence of Covid-19. Like most of Asia, Indonesia has been attempting to control this through a combination of shielding its most vulnerable citizens through continued subsidies while attempting to optimise supply chains. Like most of Asia, Indonesia hasn’t been to control the market at all, because uncoordinated attempts across a wide spectrum of countries to achieve a similar level of individual protectionism is self-defeating.

Cooking oil is a major product of sensitive importance in Indonesia, and one that it is self-sufficient in as a result of its status as the world’s largest palm oil producer. So large is Indonesia in that regard that its excess palm oil production has been directed to increasingly higher biodiesel mandates, with a B40 mandate – diesel containing 40% of palm material – originally schedule for full implementation this year. But as palm oil prices started rising to all-time highs at the beginning of January, cooking oil started becoming scarcer in Indonesia. The government blamed hoarding and – wary of the Ramadan period and domestic unrest – implemented a Domestic Market Obligation on palm oil refineries, directing them to devote 20% of projected exports for domestic use. Increasingly stricter terms for the DMO continued over February and March, only for an abrupt U-turn in mid-March that removed the DMO completely. But as the war in Ukraine drove prices even further, Indonesia shocked the market by announcing an total ban on palm oil exports in late April. Chaotically, the ban was first clarified to be palm olein only (straight refining cooking oil), but then flip-flopped into a total ban of crude palm oil as well. Markets went haywire, prices jumped to historical highs and Indonesia’s trading partners reacted with alarm.

Joko Widodo has said that the ban will be indefinite until domestic cooking oil prices ‘moderate’. With the global situation as it is, ‘moderate’ is unlikely to be achieved until the end of 2022 at least, if ‘moderate’ is taken to be the previous level of palm oil prices – roughly half of current pricing. Logistically, Indonesia cannot hold out on the ban for more than two months. Only a third of Indonesia’s monthly palm oil production is consumed domestically; the rest is exported. An indefinite ban means that not only fill storage tanks up beyond capacity and estates forced to let fruit rot, but Indonesia will be missing out on crucial revenue from its crude palm oil export tax. Which is used to fund its biodiesel subsidies.

And that’s where the implications on oil come in. Indonesia’s ham-fisted attempt at protectionism has dire implications on biofuels policies in Asia. Palm oil prices within Indonesia might sink as long as surplus volumes can’t make it beyond the borders, but international palm oil prices will remain high as consuming countries pivot to producers like Malaysia, Thailand, Papua New Guinea, West Africa and Latin America. That in turn, threatens the biodiesel mandates in Thailand and Malaysia. The Thai government has already expressed concern over palm-led food price inflation and associated pressure on its (subsidised) biodiesel programme, launching efforts to mitigate the worst effects. Malaysia – which has a more direct approach to subsidised fuels – is also feeling the pinch. Thailand’s move to B10 and Malaysia’s move to B20 is now in jeopardy; in fact, Thailand has regressed its national mandate from B7 to B5. And the reason is that the differential between the bio- and the diesel portion of the biodiesel is now so disparate that subsidy regimes break down. It would be far cheaper – for the government, the tax-payers and consumers – to use straight diesel instead of biodiesel, as evidenced by Thailand’s reversal in mandates.

That, in turn, has implications on crude pricing. While OPEC+ is stubbornly sticking to its gentle approach to managing global crude supply, the stunning rebound in Asian demand has already kept the consumption side tight to match that supply. Crude prices above US$100/b are a recipe for demand destruction, and Asian economies have been preparing for this by looking at alternatives; biofuels for example. In the past four years, Indonesia has converted some of its oil refineries into biodiesel plants; in China, stricter crude import quotas are paving the way for China to clamp down on its status of a fuels exporter in favour of self-sustainability. But what happens when crude prices are high, but the prices of alternatives are higher? That is the case for palm oil now, where the gasoil-palm spread is now triple the previous average.

Part of this situation is due to market dynamics. Part of it is due to geopolitical effects. But part of it is also due to Indonesia’s knee-jerk reaction. Supply disruption at the level of a blanket ban is always seismic and kicks off a chain of unintended consequences; see the OPEC oil shocks of the 70s. Indonesia’s palm oil export ban is almost at that level. ‘Indefinite’ is a vague term and offers no consolation to markets looking for direction. Damage will be done, even if the ban lasts a month. But the longer it lasts – Indonesian general elections are due in February 2024 – the more serious the consequences could be. And the more the oil and refining industry in Asia will have to think about their preconceived notions of the future of oil in the region.

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Market Outlook:

  • Crude price trading range: Brent – US$110-1113/b, WTI – US$105-110/b
  • As the war in Ukraine becomes increasingly entrenched, the pressure on global crude prices as Russian energy exports remain curtailed; OPEC+ is offering little hope to consumers of displaced Russian crude, with no indication that it is ready to drastically increase supply beyond its current gentle approach
  • In the US, the so-called NOPEC bill is moving ahead, paving the way for the US to sue the OPEC+ group under antitrust rules for market manipulation, setting up a tense next few months as international geopolitics and trade relations are re-evaluated

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