U.S. LNG Exports Reach a Tipping Point

Fri, December 08, 2017

Five years later, just days before the Houston company shipped its first LNG cargo, another big deal gave a jolt to nascent U.S. industry. Royal Dutch Shell bought Cheniere's customer, BG Gas for $50 billion, a move that made Shell the world's largest international LNG producer and marketerand allied it with this nation's biggest LNG exporter. Shell remains Cheniere's best customer, buying almost half the production of Cheniere's massive Sabine Pass LNG terminal.

These two events have helped bring the United States to a tipping point, as LNG exports, mostly out of Texas and Louisiana, grow quickly. The Energy Department projects that LNG production capacity will quadruple by the end of 2019, making the nation the largest source of LNG after Qatar and Australia. The International Energy Agency predicts the U.S. could vault to first within a decade.

Situated on more than 1,000 acres of rural swamplands on the Louisiana side of the Texas state border overlooking Port Arthur, Cheniere's Sabine Pass complex recently added its fourth LNG unit and started shipping cargos this fall, solidifying its position as the world's largest LNG exporting terminal outside of Ras Laffan Industrial City in Qatar.

The expansion comes as Virginia's Dominion Energy prepares this month to become the nation's second LNG exporter, operating from its Cove Point terminal in Maryland. Shell is buying the first Cove Point exports.

Shell is among the world's biggest energy companies increasing their bets on natural gas and LNG as pressure builds around the world to lower emissions of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, that contribute to climate change. Natural gas burns cleaner than coal and oil and is considered by many analysts as the best complement to intermittent wind and solar energy because gas-fired plants can ramp up quickly to fill in production gaps.

"LNG will be a much more important part of the global energy mix going forward," said Steve Hill, executive vice president of Shell Energy overseeing LNG. "The way we reduce our CO2 emissions is by selling cleaner stuff."

Coming Soon

The most recent Sabine Pass cargo left this week on Dynagas' Lena River vessel en route to India as Asia becomes a key destination for LNG exports. China increased its LNG purchases the most in 2017 and India was one of the fastest growing markets as well. Europe's demand for American LNG also is growing. Poland recently agreed to start buying LNG shipped out of Sabine Pass to reduce its reliance on Russian gas.

More LNG projects will come online in 2018 and 2019. After Cove Point, Houston-based Kinder Morgan's Elba Island LNG project is scheduled next year to begin shipments out of Georgia. The first LNG export terminal in Texas is slated to open in late 2018, when Houston's Freeport LNG is expected to begin operations at its Quintana Island terminal.

Delays have pushed back Sempra Energy's Cameron LNG project in Louisiana to 2019. Cheniere also plans to expand Sabine Pass and open its Corpus Christi terminal in 2019.

After this first batch of American facilities are completed, the second wave of U.S. LNG projects is on the horizon. The question is which of several potential developments will move forward.

Because of a global LNG glut that's expected to develop by 2019, it's extremely hard for proposed projects to secure the long-term contracts they need to fund construction, said Gautam Sudhaker, LNG research director at IHS Markit, a consulting firm. Buyers want more flexibility and don't want to commit to the 20-year deals that formed the foundation of Sabine Pass and other recent projects.

Global competition also keeps mounting. Shell has its own LNG complexes in Australia as does the U.S. oil major Chevron, which just opened its Wheatstone LNG complex there. Russia-based Novatek's Yamal LNG plant commenced operations in northwestern Siberia this month, and Anadarko Petroleum of The Woodlands is pressing ahead with its Mozambique LNG project off of Africa's East Coast.

Qatar recently said it plans to open new production and increase its LNG exports in the coming years, even as the Middle Eastern nation feuds with Saudi Arabia and other neighboring countries.

Second Wave

Cheniere was failing financially after Sabine Pass was originally built to handle LNG imports, but the company made a $20 billion bet to convert it to a much larger export terminal, where it cools U.S. shale gas to liquid form at minus-260 degrees Fahrenheit to ship around the world.

The man who took that risk, Cheniere co-founder Charif Souki, was ousted two years ago in a shareholder revolt led by famed corporate raider Carl Icahn. But Souki, in a partnership with former BG Chief Operating Officer Martin Houston, launched the Houston company Tellurian, which is driving to lead the U.S. second wave with Driftwood LNG project in Louisiana.

Other second wave projects include the Rio Grande LNG project in Brownsville proposed by NextDecade of The Woodlands, and Magnolia LNG in Louisiana, planned by Australia's LNG Ltd., which expects to move its headquarter to Houston.

Big Oil companies, including Shell and Exxon Mobil also could build LNG projects along the Gulf Coast. Exxon and Qatar are considering converting their Golden Pass terminal, which is visible from Cheniere's Sabine Pass, into an LNG exporter on the Texas side of the border. Shell still could build its pending Lake Charles LNG project with Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners, priorities, but both companies have placed funding priorities elsewhere for now.

Shell's most recent U.S. LNG project though may prove more accessible - and fun - to many Americans. The company just announced a deal with Carnival Cruise Line to supply North America's first LNG-powered cruise ships.