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Last Updated: August 14, 2019
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LNG exports from selected countries

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.

Australia LNG export capacity

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.

Australia LNG projects

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.

Australia LNG exports by destination country

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.

international exports imports United States Australia Qatar Russia LNG map EIA
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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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