Easwaran Kanason

Co - founder of NrgEdge
Last Updated: March 1, 2020
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Business Trends

Last week, Spanish utility Naturgy Energy Group cancelled two LNG cargoes set to be delivered to Spain from the US Gulf Coast through Cheniere Energy. Scheduled to be loaded at the Texas Corpus Christi facility, Naturgy cancelled the cargoes by exercising its option not to lift under its 20-year contract with Cheniere, as its Spanish clients Repsol and Endesa forgo-ed the fuel. If this was an isolated incident, it could be ignored. But it isn’t. At least half a dozen buyers are reportedly considering cancelling cargoes from the US, including two Japanese powerhouses. It is not that the LNG isn’t required, though a mild winter in Northeast Asia did sap spot demand – it is simply that there is too much LNG sloshing around the world currently.

Consider this. In 2017, global LNG capacity was some 290 million tons per annum. In 2019, this had risen to some 393 million tons, a startling jump over two years, as the last few LNG megaprojects in Australia and the first few US Gulf LNG projects started up. And it will only go up. Based on approvals in 2019, global LNG liquefaction capacity could grow to 843 million tons per annum by the mid-2020s, propelled by additional volumes from the US, Russia, Papua New Guinea, the Eastern Mediterranean and West Africa. That’s a lot of capacity. Not all of it will make it past the planning stage and certainly not the 250 mtpa planned in the US but enough it will. And for a while, there was a lot of demand. But in a classic case of ‘if we build it, they will buy it’, supply has outstripped demand. And therein lies the problem.

The gap between LNG supply and demand has driven prices to record lows. US prices are currently at some US$2.60 per mmBtu for spot cargoes, margins so low that it may not even be profitable to sell cargoes to Europe. Part of this is due to the shale revolution, which created so much gas that it drove Henry Hub gas prices to a major discount against other natural gas benchmarks. But the US has to export its natural gas, because there is nowhere else for it to go. Europe itself isn’t in a position to take more, as stockpiles are brimming. In Asia, severe winters usually spike demand for spot cargoes, but two consecutive mild winters have created a glut.

Add to this the Covid-19 coronavirus situation. China has already declared force majeure on receiving some cargoes of LNG (though this was rejected by Shell and Total), turning an already weak year into a bloodbath. It has always been taken that China would be the LNG market’s great hope; and indeed, many US Gulf LNG exporters have been rushing to sign agreements with Chinese importers. But Donald Trump’s trade war has dried that trade up, and even with a Phase 1 trade deal, China is not in a position to ramp up at all.

Despite all the (short term) gloom, the long term prognosis for LNG demand remains slightly healthier. Shell, which became the world’s largest LNG trader with its purchase of the BG Group, is predicting that global LNG trade will double by 2040, as ‘policy meets reality’ for countries aiming to move to cleaner energy from coal switching in Europe to growing populations in China. LNG demand as of 2019 was an estimated 360 million tons, having grown 12.5% y-o-y. If that projection holds through, it will still be a situation of oversupply but one that should be manageable. But even Shell, as positive as it is only expects the situation to improve in the mid-2020s, as a ‘combination of continued demand growth and reduction in new supply coming on-stream’ changes the market yet again.

With eroding demand and ample supply, LNG is in a painful place right now. Too much supply has entered the market at a time when demand is taking a hit; with more supply on the way, it will be a painful adjustment period for the industry. But LNG is a long game. And the future looks to be brighter, as long as players can get through the current huge hump in the road ahead.

Global LNG benchmark prices:

  • Henry Hub: US$3.90/mmBtu (January 2019) vs US$2.00/mmBtu (January 2020)
  • NBP: US$7.80/mmBtu (January 2019) vs US$3.80/mmBtu (January 2020)
  • Japan-Korea: US$8.00/mmBtu (January 2019) vs US$4.00/mmBtu (January 2020)

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Renewables became the second-most prevalent U.S. electricity source in 2020

In 2020, renewable energy sources (including wind, hydroelectric, solar, biomass, and geothermal energy) generated a record 834 billion kilowatthours (kWh) of electricity, or about 21% of all the electricity generated in the United States. Only natural gas (1,617 billion kWh) produced more electricity than renewables in the United States in 2020. Renewables surpassed both nuclear (790 billion kWh) and coal (774 billion kWh) for the first time on record. This outcome in 2020 was due mostly to significantly less coal use in U.S. electricity generation and steadily increased use of wind and solar.

In 2020, U.S. electricity generation from coal in all sectors declined 20% from 2019, while renewables, including small-scale solar, increased 9%. Wind, currently the most prevalent source of renewable electricity in the United States, grew 14% in 2020 from 2019. Utility-scale solar generation (from projects greater than 1 megawatt) increased 26%, and small-scale solar, such as grid-connected rooftop solar panels, increased 19%.

Coal-fired electricity generation in the United States peaked at 2,016 billion kWh in 2007 and much of that capacity has been replaced by or converted to natural gas-fired generation since then. Coal was the largest source of electricity in the United States until 2016, and 2020 was the first year that more electricity was generated by renewables and by nuclear power than by coal (according to our data series that dates back to 1949). Nuclear electric power declined 2% from 2019 to 2020 because several nuclear power plants retired and other nuclear plants experienced slightly more maintenance-related outages.

We expect coal-fired electricity generation to increase in the United States during 2021 as natural gas prices continue to rise and as coal becomes more economically competitive. Based on forecasts in our Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), we expect coal-fired electricity generation in all sectors in 2021 to increase 18% from 2020 levels before falling 2% in 2022. We expect U.S. renewable generation across all sectors to increase 7% in 2021 and 10% in 2022. As a result, we forecast coal will be the second-most prevalent electricity source in 2021, and renewables will be the second-most prevalent source in 2022. We expect nuclear electric power to decline 2% in 2021 and 3% in 2022 as operators retire several generators.

monthly U.S electricity generation from all sectors, selected sources

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Monthly Energy Review and Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO)
Note: This graph shows electricity net generation in all sectors (electric power, industrial, commercial, and residential) and includes both utility-scale and small-scale (customer-sited, less than 1 megawatt) solar.

July, 29 2021

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July, 28 2021
Abu Dhabi Lifts The Tide For OPEC+

The tizzy that OPEC+ threw the world into in early July has been settled, with a confirmed pathway forward to restore production for the rest of 2021 and an extension of the deal further into 2022. The lone holdout from the early July meetings – the UAE – appears to have been satisfied with the concessions offered, paving the way for the crude oil producer group to begin increasing its crude oil production in monthly increments from August onwards. However, this deal comes at another difficult time; where the market had been fretting about a shortage of oil a month ago due to resurgent demand, a new blast of Covid-19 infections driven by the delta variant threatens to upend the equation once again. And so Brent crude futures settled below US$70/b for the first time since late May even as the argument at OPEC+ appeared to be settled.

How the argument settled? Well, on the surface, Riyadh and Moscow capitulated to Abu Dhabi’s demands that its baseline quota be adjusted in order to extend the deal. But since that demand would result in all other members asking for a similar adjustment, Saudi Arabia and Russia worked in a rise for all, and in the process, awarded themselves the largest increases.

The net result of this won’t be that apparent in the short- and mid-term. The original proposal at the early July meetings, backed by OPEC+’s technical committee was to raise crude production collectively by 400,000 b/d per month from August through December. The resulting 2 mmb/d increase in crude oil, it was predicted, would still lag behind expected gains in consumption, but would be sufficient to keep prices steady around the US$70/b range, especially when factoring in production increases from non-OPEC+ countries. The longer term view was that the supply deal needed to be extended from its initial expiration in April 2022, since global recovery was still ‘fragile’ and the bloc needed to exercise some control over supply to prevent ‘wild market fluctuations’. All members agreed to this, but the UAE had a caveat – that the extension must be accompanied by a review of its ‘unfair’ baseline quota.

The fix to this issue that was engineered by OPEC+’s twin giants Saudi Arabia and Russia was to raise quotas for all members from May 2022 through to the new expiration date for the supply deal in September 2022. So the UAE will see its baseline quota, the number by which its output compliance is calculated, rise by 330,000 b/d to 3.5 mmb/d. That’s a 10% increase, which will assuage Abu Dhabi’s itchiness to put the expensive crude output infrastructure it has invested billions in since 2016 to good use. But while the UAE’s hike was greater than some others, Saudi Arabia and Russia took the opportunity to award themselves (at least in terms of absolute numbers) by raising their own quotas by 500,000 b/d to 11.5 mmb/d each.

On the surface, that seems academic. Saudi Arabia has only pumped that much oil on a handful of occasions, while Russia’s true capacity is pegged at some 10.4 mmb/d. But the additional generous headroom offered by these larger numbers means that Riyadh and Moscow will have more leeway to react to market fluctuations in 2022, which at this point remains murky. Because while there is consensus that more crude oil will be needed in 2022, there is no consensus on what that number should be. The US EIA is predicting that OPEC+ should be pumping an additional 4 million barrels collectively from June 2021 levels in order to meet demand in the first half of 2022. However, OPEC itself is looking at a figure of some 3 mmb/d, forecasting a period of relative weakness that could possibly require a brief tightening of quotas if the new delta-driven Covid surge erupts into another series of crippling lockdowns. The IEA forecast is aligned with OPEC’s, with an even more cautious bent.

But at some point with the supply pathway from August to December set in stone, although OPEC+ has been careful to say that it may continue to make adjustments to this as the market develops, the issues of headline quota numbers fades away, while compliance rises to prominence. Because the success of the OPEC+ deal was not just based on its huge scale, but also the willingness of its 23 members to comply to their quotas. And that compliance, which has been the source of major frustrations in the past, has been surprisingly high throughout the pandemic. Even in May 2021, the average OPEC+ compliance was 85%. Only a handful of countries – Malaysia, Bahrain, Mexico and Equatorial Guinea – were estimated to have exceeded their quotas, and even then not by much. But compliance is easier to achieve in an environment where demand is weak. You can’t pump what you can’t sell after all. But as crude balances rapidly shift from glut to gluttony, the imperative to maintain compliance dissipates.

For now, OPEC+ has managed to placate the market with its ability to corral its members together to set some certainty for the immediate future of crude. Brent crude prices have now been restored above US$70/b, with WTI also climbing. The spat between Saudi Arabia and the UAE may have surprised and shocked market observers, but there is still unity in the club. However, that unity is set to be tested. By the end of 2021, the focus of the OPEC+ supply deal will have shifted from theoretical quotas to actual compliance. Abu Dhabi has managed to lift the tide for all OPEC+ members, offering them more room to manoeuvre in a recovering market, but discipline will not be uniform. And that’s when the fireworks will really begin.

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Market Outlook:

  • Crude price trading range: Brent – US$72-74/b, WTI – US$70-72/b
  • Worries about new Covid-19 infections worldwide dragging down demand just as OPEC+ announced that it would be raising production by 400,000 b/d a month from August onward triggered a slide in Brent and WTI crude prices below US$70/b
  • However, that slide was short lived as near-term demand indications showed the consumption remained relatively resilient, which lifted crude prices back to their previous range in the low US$70/b level, although the longer-term effects of the Covid-19 delta variants are still unknown at this moment
  • Clarity over supply and demand will continue to be lacking given the fragility of the situation, which suggests that crude prices will remain broadly rangebound for now

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July, 26 2021