U.S. exports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) reached 1.94 billion cubic feet per day (Bcf/d) in 2017, up from 0.5 Bcf/d in 2016. As LNG exports increased, shipments went to more destinations. U.S. LNG exports in 2017, all of which originated from Louisiana’s Sabine Pass liquefaction terminal, reached 25 countries.
More than half (53%) of U.S. LNG exports in 2017 were shipped to three countries: Mexico, South Korea, and China. Mexico received the largest amount of U.S. LNG exports, at 20% of the 2017 total. Growing natural gas demand in Mexico, particularly from the power generation sector, and delays in the construction of domestic pipelines connecting to U.S. export pipelines led Mexico to rely on LNG imports to supplement imports of natural gas by pipeline.
In Asia, the widening difference between the Henry Hub natural gas price—to which U.S. LNG contract prices are indexed—and crude oil—to which LNG prices are benchmarked in Asia—helped to drive increases in LNG imports from the United States. Exports to South Korea accounted for 18% of total U.S. LNG exports in 2017 and were part of long-term contracts between sellers Cheniere Energy and Shell and the Korean natural gas buyers—utilities KOGAS and KEPCO. Exports to China made up 15% of total U.S. LNG exports. These exports were sold mostly on a spot basis, with volumes in October, November, and December increasing as record-high LNG demand prompted China to seek additional LNG on the global spot market to supplement contracted volumes.
Almost 60% of U.S. LNG in 2017 was sold on a spot basis to more than 20 countries in Asia, North and South America, Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, and the Caribbean. Although liquefaction capacity at Sabine Pass is fully contracted under long-term contracts to various buyers, flexibility in those contracts’ destination clauses allows U.S. LNG to be shipped to any market in the world.
After countries in Asia and North America (Mexico), countries in Europe collectively accounted for the third-largest share of U.S. LNG exports. LNG imports by several European countries increased in 2017, driven by increased demand primarily from the power generation sector. South American LNG imports declined in 2017. Demand for natural gas in that region is highly variable and is affected by the availability of competing lower-cost natural gas supply and hydro generation output.
The increase in LNG exports over the past two years is the result of the continuing expansion of U.S. LNG export capacity. Two LNG projects—Sabine Pass in Louisiana and Cove Point in Maryland—have come online since 2016, increasing U.S. LNG export capacity to 3.6 Bcf/d.
Four more projects are scheduled to come online in the next two years: Elba Island LNG in Georgia and Cameron LNG in Louisiana in 2018, then Freeport LNG and Corpus Christi LNG in Texas in 2019. Once completed, U.S. LNG export capacity is expected to reach 9.6 Bcf/d by the end of 2019. As export capacity continues to increase, the United States is projected to become the third-largest LNG exporter in the world by 2020, surpassing Malaysia and remaining behind only Australia and Qatar.
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In the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) February Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), EIA forecasts that the Lower 48 states’ working natural gas in storage will end the 2019–20 winter heating season (November 1–March 31) at 1,935 billion cubic feet (Bcf), with 12% more inventory than the previous five-year average. This increase is the result of mild winter temperatures and continuing strong production. EIA forecasts that net injections during the refill season (April 1–October 31) will bring the total working gas in storage to 4,029 Bcf, which, if realized, would be the largest monthly inventory level on record.
Mild winter temperatures for the current winter have put downward pressure on natural gas prices and led to smaller withdrawals from natural gas into storage. Year-over-year growth in dry natural gas production and natural gas exports—especially liquefied natural gas (LNG)—throughout 2019 also affected natural gas storage levels. On October 11, 2019, the total natural gas in storage surpassed the previous five-year average—an indicator of typical storage levels—for the first time since mid-2017.
The total natural gas in storage at the start of this heating season was 3,725 Bcf on October 31, 2019. EIA expects withdrawals from working natural gas storage to total 1,790 Bcf at the end of March 2020. If realized, this would be the least natural gas withdrawn during a heating season since the winter of 2015–16, when temperatures were also mild.
Injections into and withdrawals from natural gas storage balance seasonal and other fluctuations in consumption. Natural gas demand is greatest in the winter months, when residential and commercial demand for natural gas for space heating increases. Natural gas consumption in the power sector is greatest in summer months, when overall electricity demand is relatively high because of air conditioning.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Short-Term Energy Outlook
In the latest STEO, EIA expects the total working natural gas in storage will exceed the previous five-year average for the remainder of 2020, despite declines in dry natural gas production, increases in natural gas consumption in the electric power sector, and increases in natural gas exports. EIA expects monthly natural gas production to decline from last year’s record levels in 2020 as lower natural gas prices reduce incentives for natural gas-directed drilling and as lower crude oil prices reduce incentives for oil-directed drilling and associated gas production.
At the start of February, a major new find was jointly announced by the two largest emirates within the UAE: the oil-rich Abu Dhabi and the ambitious Dubai. Between them, they literally made the world’s largest natural gas discovery since 2005. Located at the border between the two sheikdoms, the Jebel Ali field is estimated to contain some 80 trillion scf of natural gas, the largest global find since the Galkynysh field in Turkmenistan.
Stretching over 5,000 square km, an exploration campaign by Abu Dhabi involving over 10 wells confirmed the enormous discovery in early January 2020. The shallow nature of the onshore reserves should make it easier to extract gas at lower costs, hastening the time-to-market. At current estimated figures, Jebel Ali would be the fourth-largest gas field in the Middle East, behind Qatar’s North Field, Iran’s South Pars and Abu Dhabi’s own Bab field.
The politics of the UAE can be complicated; each emirate is essentially self-governing with federal oversight, which is dominated by Abu Dhabi and Dubai (which always hold the President and Prime Minister roles, according to convention). This essentially means that each emirate has grew quite independently. Fujairah, for example, developed into a bunkering port, while Sharjah went into industry and manufacturing. Dubai is globally famous for its titanic real estate projects, pursued finance, services and media, while Abu Dhabi, the largest and most blessed of all with hydrocarbon resources, turned into an energy powerhouse. Oil & gas wealth in the UAE is mainly in Abu Dhabi; so while the Jebel Ali discovery is a welcome addition for Abu Dhabi, it is a game changer for Dubai, which imports most of its energy needs.
Speculation has raised that possibility that the Jebel Ali field could vault the UAE into gas self-sufficiency, because even Abu Dhabi imports gas. The UAE has a stated goal to be gas independent by 2030. On paper, that’s possible. Abu Dhabi’s ADNOC has agreed to develop the field with Dubai’s gas supplier, the Dubai Supply Authority (DUSUP), with the entire supply will be channel to DUSUP for use in Dubai. Jebel Ali could begin producing gas by 2023, and will likely be distributed domestically through pipeline. The enormous reserves could supply the entire UAE’s gas demand for nearly 30 years, assuming optimal recovery conditions. However, in practice, self-sufficiency might take longer to achieve.
Dubai and indeed, Abu Dhabi are currently reliant on Qatar for their gas supply. An existing sales agreement that expires in 2032 sees Qatar pipe 2 bcf/d of gas to the UAE through Abu Dhabi. The problem is that these neighbours are erstwhile friends. A division in the Middle East between the pro-Saudi Arabia and pro-Iran blocs has caused a rift. Led by Saudi Arabia, several Persian Gulf states including the UAE implemented a diplomatic and trade blockade on Qatar, isolating it. The blockade, slightly weakened, still continues today. Even now, planes flying into Qatar have to make strange manoeuvres when approaching to avoid encroaching on Saudi and UAE airspace. However, the gas supply arrangement remains in place.
And this is where the Jebel Ali discovery could come in handy. Qatar is already on track to be self-sufficient in gas terms by 2025, but will probably honour the Qatar deal until expiration. Dubai has been increasingly reliant on LNG through an FSRU for power generation, but has attempted over the years to kick-start a number of coal or solar-power projects. Jebel Ali won’t kick the addiction, but it could definitely reduce Dubai’s reliance on Qatari gas.
Jebel Ali wasn’t the only recent gas discovery made in the UAE. Further north, the Sharjah National Oil Corp and Italy’s Eni announced a new onshore gas and condensate discovery. Though tiny in comparison to Jebel Ali, some 50 mscf/d of lean gas and condensate. The cumulative effects of these discoveries could make gas self-sufficiency a reality sooner. At this point, the UAE consumes some 7.4 bcf gas per day, while marketed production is some 6.2 bcf/d. An ambitious plan to develop Abu Dhabi’s large gas fields was the rationale behind naming the 2030 self-sufficiency deadline. With the discovery of Jebel Ali, that can now be brought forward by a couple of years at least. And there might even be some left over to be exported as LNG
The UAE Major Gas Projects:
Headline crude prices for the week beginning 17 February 2020 – Brent: US$53/b; WTI: US$49/b
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