In about three weeks, a mammoth ship will arrive at the Browse Basin, some 475km off the coast of Broome in Western Australia. It will anchor there to 16 mooring chains, floating above the Prelude and Concerto fields, processing natural gas into valuable LNG, then transferring it to gas carriers that will ship it to the rest of the world. This is Shell’s Prelude, the largest floating LNG (FLNG) facility in the world, and its completion marks a new era in the LNG world.
As it departed from the Samsung Heavy Industries shipyard in Geoje, South Korea on a month-long journey, the vital statistics of the Prelude are this – 488m long, 74m wide, using 260,000 tons of steel. It has the capacity of some 3.6 mtpa of LNG, 1.2 mtpa of condensate and 400 ktpa of LPG, rivalling some of the largest onshore plants. Commissioned in 2011 during the ascendance of LNG, repeated delays saw completion postponed since its 2012 construction start and also saw costs spiral. The initial estimate of cost was US$10.8-12.6 billion back in 2012; Shell (with partners Inpex, Kogas and CPC) in 2014 admitted the costs were rising, putting the price at US$3.5 billion per mtpa capacity – which means the upper range of costs are US$17.85 billion. With production beginning in 2018, Prelude starts life in a world very different from when it was first conceived. Back then, LNG prices were strong as demand outstripped supply. But now supply has outpaced demand, and prices have fallen in response. Spot LNG prices in Asia are now hovering at about US$5/mmbTu, compared to US$15/mmBtu back in 2012. Those aren’t good numbers; and with the wave of LNG coming out of Australia, Canada and the US growing, those prices could fall even further.
But Prelude is a long game. All FLNG vessels are. Designed to be gigantic industrial complexes on ships, their strength is versatility – they can sail to where the gas is. Shell certainly has the financial muscle to weather some rocky times of low LNG prices, and its acquisition of the BG Group gives it a larger portfolio to pour LNG into, and clients to sell to. The process of creating this vast new LNG portfolio, however, piled debt onto Shell’s financials books – which explains why the supermajor has been furiously cutting debt and selling assets over the past 18 months. Prelude is a calculated gamble, and one that Shell took at a very high buy-in.
Others also remain convinced that FLNG is the future. While Qatar seems happy with expanding its onshore Ras Laffan facilities and landed LNG plants spring up along the North American Pacific Coast, Malaysia’s Petronas believes in a life at sea. The first ever operational FLNG facility is actually a Petronas facility – the PFLNG Satu that delivered its first cargo from the Kanowit field off Bintulu in Malaysia in April. With a capacity of 1.2 mtpa of LNG, it is certainly smaller, but that keeps the stakes lower, though it too saw cost overruns and delays, with a price tag of some US$10 billion. And soon, it will have a brother – PFLNG Dua – which is scheduled to be completed in 2020 and join Satu in the South China Sea.
Elsewhere, FLNG projects are still far and few between. The mammoth upfront cost does not always offset potential versatility, particularly since LNG prices waned. GDF Suez and Santos’ Bonaparte FLNG project, for example, was shelved in favour of a more traditional pipeline approach. But there is still interest. Keppel Offshore & Marine will soon be delivering the first FLNG conversion (from an LNG carrier) to Golar LNG, who will put the Hilli Episeyo to service offshore Cameroon. And China seems to believe in the strength of numbers – it will be investing up to US$7 billion in FLNG projects on both coasts of Africa to secure LNG supplies for what it projects will be a boom in Chinese natural gas demand. With multiple projects, that can spread the cost – and also capitalise when, or if, LNG prices begin to recover.
The world will need more energy in the future and that is certain. It requires cleaner, reliable and accessible fuel options, and LNG does fit that bill in a long way. FLNG operators, especially Shell in this instance will be hoping the demand for LNG will keep rising at a pace that will make their investment (or gamble) eventually pay off.
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Headline crude prices for the week beginning 12 August 2019 – Brent: US$58/b; WTI: US$54/b
Headlines of the week
The momentum for crude prices abated in the second quarter of 2019, providing less cushion for the financial results of the world’s oil companies. But while still profitable, the less-than-ideal crude prices led to mixed results across the boards – exposing gaps and pressure points for individual firms masked by stronger prices in Q119.
In a preview of general performance in the industry, Total – traditionally the first of the supermajors to release its earnings – announced results that fell short of expectations. Net profits for the French firm fell to US$2.89 billion from US$3.55 billion, below analyst predictions. This was despite a 9% increase in oil and gas production – in particularly increases in LNG sales – and a softer 2.5% drop in revenue. Total also announced that it would be selling off US$5 billion in assets through 2020 to keep a lid on debt after agreeing to purchase Anadarko Petroleum’s African assets for US$8.8 billion through Occidental.
As with Total, weaker crude prices were the common factor in Q219 results in the industry, though the exact extent differed. Russia’s Gazprom posted higher revenue and higher net profits, while Norway’s Equinor reported falls in both revenue and net profits – leading it to slash investment plans for the year. American producer ConocoPhillips’ quarterly profits and revenue were flat year-on-year, while Italy’s Eni – which has seen major success in Africa – reported flat revenue but lower profits.
After several quarters of disappointing analysts, ExxonMobil managed to beat expectations in Q219 – recording better-than-expected net profits of US$3.1 billion. In comparison, Shell – which has outperformed ExxonMobil over the past few reporting periods – disappointed the market with net profits halving to US$3 billion from US$6 billion in Q218. The weak performance was attributed (once again) to lower crude prices, as well as lower refining margins. BP, however, managed to beat expectations with net profits of US$2.8 billion, on par with its performance in Q218. But the supermajor king of the quarter was Chevron, with net profits of US$4.3 billion from gains in Permian production, as well as the termination fee from Anadarko after the latter walked away from a buyout deal in favour of Occidental.
And then, there was a surprise. In a rare move, Saudi Aramco – long reputed to be the world’s largest and most profitable energy firm – published its earnings report for 1H19, which is its first ever. The results confirmed what the industry had long accepted as fact: net profit was US$46.9 billion. If split evenly, Aramco’s net profits would be more than the five supermajors combined in Q219. Interestingly, Aramco also divulged that it had paid out US$46.4 billion in dividends, or 99% of its net profit. US$20 billion of that dividend was paid to its principle shareholder – the government of Saudi Arabia – up from US$6 billion in 1H18, which makes for interesting reading to potential investors as Aramco makes a second push for an IPO. With Saudi Aramco CFO Khalid al-Dabbagh announcing that the company was ‘ready for the IPO’ during its first ever earnings call, this reporting paves the way to the behemoth opening up its shares to the public. But all the deep reservoirs in the world did not shield Aramco from market forces. As it led the way in adhering to the OPEC+ club’s current supply restrictions, weaker crude prices saw net profit fall by 11.5% from US$53 billion a year earlier.
So, it’s been a mixed bunch of results this quarter – which perhaps showcases the differences in operational strategies of the world’s oil and gas companies. There is no danger of financials heading into the red any time soon, but without a rising tide of crude prices, Q219 simply shows that though the challenges facing the industry are the same, their approaches to the solutions still differ.
Supermajor Financials: Q2 2019
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, CEDIGAZ, Global Trade Tracker
Australia is on track to surpass Qatar as the world’s largest liquefied natural gas (LNG) exporter, according to Australia’s Department of Industry, Innovation, and Science (DIIS). Australia already surpasses Qatar in LNG export capacity and exported more LNG than Qatar in November 2018 and April 2019. Within the next year, as Australia’s newly commissioned projects ramp up and operate at full capacity, EIA expects Australia to consistently export more LNG than Qatar.
Australia’s LNG export capacity increased from 2.6 billion cubic feet per day (Bcf/d) in 2011 to more than 11.4 Bcf/d in 2019. Australia’s DIIS forecasts that Australian LNG exports will grow to 10.8 Bcf/d by 2020–21 once the recently commissioned Wheatstone, Ichthys, and Prelude floating LNG (FLNG) projects ramp up to full production. Prelude FLNG, a barge located offshore in northwestern Australia, was the last of the eight new LNG export projects that came online in Australia in 2012 through 2018 as part of a major LNG capacity buildout.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, based on International Group of Liquefied Natural Gas Importers (GIIGNL), trade press
Note: Project’s online date reflects shipment of the first LNG cargo. North West Shelf Trains 1–2 have been in operation since 1989, Train 3 since 1992, Train 4 since 2004, and Train 5 since 2008.
Starting in 2012, five LNG export projects were developed in northwestern Australia: onshore projects Pluto, Gorgon, Wheatstone, and Ichthys, and the offshore Prelude FLNG. The total LNG export capacity in northwestern Australia is now 8.1 Bcf/d. In eastern Australia, three LNG export projects were completed in 2015 and 2016 on Curtis Island in Queensland—Queensland Curtis, Gladstone, and Australia Pacific—with a combined nameplate capacity of 3.4 Bcf/d. All three projects in eastern Australia use natural gas from coalbed methane as a feedstock to produce LNG.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration
Most of Australia’s LNG is exported under long-term contracts to three countries: Japan, China, and South Korea. An increasing share of Australia’s LNG exports in recent years has been sent to China to serve its growing natural gas demand. The remaining volumes were almost entirely exported to other countries in Asia, with occasional small volumes exported to destinations outside of Asia.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, based on International Group of Liquefied Natural Gas Importers (GIIGNL)
For several years, Australia’s natural gas markets in eastern states have been experiencing natural gas shortages and increasing prices because coal-bed methane production at some LNG export facilities in Queensland has not been meeting LNG export commitments. During these shortfalls, project developers have been supplementing their own production with natural gas purchased from the domestic market. The Australian government implemented several initiatives to address domestic natural gas production shortages in eastern states.
Several private companies proposed to develop LNG import terminals in southeastern Australia. Of the five proposed LNG import projects, Port Kembla LNG (proposed import capacity of 0.3 Bcf/d) is in the most advanced stage, having secured the necessary siting permits and an offtake contract with Australian customers. If built, the Port Kembla project will use the floating storage and regasification unit (FSRU) Höegh Galleon starting in January 2021.