In retrospect, it will be seen as a good decision. Petronas is pulling out of the US$29 billion Pacific Northwest LNG project in British Columbia, Canada. The Malaysian state oil company cited ‘prolonged depressed prices and shifts in the energy industry’ as the reasons for exiting the long-gestating project. The former refers to the current slump in LNG prices, which shows no sign of improving, and the latter refers to America’s LNG renaissance, founded not on mammoth expensive projects but nimble, dynamic plays. The decision to admit defeat has not been an easy one, but it is the right one.
The initially announced cancellation of Pacific Northwest LNG in the press, is the fifth major LNG export casualty in the last 18 months, joining Fisherman’s Landing and Browse in Australia, Oregon LNG in the USA, and Prince Rupert, also in British Columbia, to be shelved. The projects that would have joined Wheatstone, Gorgon, Ichthys and Prelude are now victims of the painful rebalancing the LNG industry has to undergo, as suppliers yield power to buyers, who for the first time in LNG history have a luxury of choice and are exerting their rights.
It might have been different, but Pacific Northwest also came under much pressure of local politics. Located in an environmentally sensitive area of British Columbia, environmentalists have railed against the project from the start, even as the Canadian federal government and the BC state government gave their approvals after extensive environment impact studies. Then in May, the ruling NDP lost their majority in BC state elections, forcing them to form a support coalition with the Green Party, vehemently opposed to the project. When that happened, the writing was always on the wall for PNW.
It is for the best. The nature of the geography at the PNW site required high costs to build the necessary infrastructure and pipelines, far higher than those smaller, more deft producers along the more established US Gulf. High costs require high prices to recoup. In the past, this would be solved by locking buyers into long-term contracts at fixed prices. That is no longer a popular option; not with US producers like Cheniere offering short, flexible contracts that countries like Japan, South Korea and China find extremely enticing. Then, battling hostile neighbours, Qatar lifted its moratorium on the vast North Field – planning to double production at the source of some of the cheapest gas in the world. You also have to consider all the African LNG projects being developed, many with stakes held by major Asian buyers, cutting off routes for Canadian supplies.
This is not the end of LNG in Canada. But it is a refocusing. The other partners in Pacific Northwest are looking at re-purposing the project, or parts of it, into a more cost-effective solution. Indian Oil has already said it will talk with the other partners – Sinopec, Japan’s Japex Montney and Petroleum Brunei - to scout for an alternative and cheaper site. Even Petronas reiterates that this is not the end of its presence in Canada, aiming to continue to develop natural gas assets and possibly even participate in Shell’s Kitimat LNG project, also in British Columbia. All players will be careful and approach new opportunities with caution. Expect more of this over the next five years, which will be a period of consolidation and recalibration of major LNG projects into a few golden eggs rather than a whole basket. It is better that a few projects stay on hold for now, then obstinately push ahead and cause a collapse of the industry.
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Headline crude prices for the week beginning 12 November 2018 – Brent: US$71/b; WTI: US$60/b
Headlines of the week
It seems to have been a topic that has been discussed for years, but a decision could finally be made. The Philippines has short-listed three different groups who are in the running to build the country’s first LNG import terminal, whittling them down from an initial 18 that submitted project proposals. The final three consist of the Philippines National Oil Company (PNOC), a joint venture between Tokyo Gas and domestic firm First Gen Corp and China’s CNOOC. The Philippines hopes to choose the final group by the end of November – an optimistic decision that belies that many, many complications that have come before.
First of all, the make-up of only one of the groups has been finalised. A local partner is a requirement for this project; CNOOC has yet to officially tie-up, although it has been talking to Manila-based Phoenix Petroleum, while state oil firm PNOC does not have a (deep-pocketed) partner yet. Firms including Chevron, Dubai’s Lloyds Energy Group and Japan’s JERA have reportedly contacted PNOC to express their interest, but a month before the Philippines wants to make a decision, its own home-grown hero hasn’t yet got its ducks lined up in a row.
And time is of essence. The once giant Malampaya gas field is running out of resources. Supplying piped natural gas to three power plants that feeds some 45% of Luzon’s electricity requirements, the Shell-operated field is expected to be completely depleted by 2024. With the country aiming to move away from burning coal or (imported) gasoil for power, gas is needed to replace gas. Even though the Philippines is pushing for a bilateral agreement with China to pave to way for joint exploration activities in disputed areas of the South China Sea – to the consternation of its citizens – any discovery in the Palawan basin or Scarborough Shoal will be years from commercialisation.
So LNG is the answer. And LNG has been the answer since 2008, when the need for an LNG import terminal was first identified. And it is not like no projects have been proposed – Australia’s Energy World Corp (EWC) has been wanting to build an LNG receiving terminal and power station in the Quezon province near Manila for years, but the project has been described as ‘trapped in a bureaucratic quagmire’ due to hurdles from various government agencies, or stymied by groups with competing interests.
PNOC itself has been wanting to build its own terminal in Batangas, within range of existing gas and power transmission facilities currently drawing Malampaya gas. But, just like Pertamina in Indonesia, it is cash-strapped and unable to drive the project on its own, hence the requirement for a partner/s. First Gen Corp and Phoenix Petroleum are both private players, with First Gen already operating four of the country’s five gas-fired plants while Phoenix Petroleum has close ties with CNOOC Gas.
Many announcements have been made and gone, but with this shortlist of three groups, it does finally look like the Philippines will be able to get its LNG ambitions of the ground. And it is thinking even bigger; wanting the terminal to become a LNG trading hub for the region – capitalising on the existing habit of ship-to-ship transfers of LNG cargoes into smaller parcels in the Philippine waters for delivery into southern China – challenging existing ambitions in Japan, South Korea and Singapore. But perhaps that is getting a bit ahead of themselves. Getting a project – any LNG project – off the ground is the first priority. And the rest can come after that.
Other Proposed LNG Projects In The Philippines: