Note: This piece was first published in Forbes on June 8.
Prices of natural gas have fallen precipitously in recent months as the global COVID-19 pandemic deepened the already existing misalignment between growing supply and relatively sluggish demand. Post-COVID-19 recovery should increase the demand through 2022, but a soft market is expected to continue through 2025. These conditions could provide an unprecedented opportunity for natural gas buyers/importers. However, while enjoying the benefits of a buyer’s market, they should consider the deleterious effects that ultra-low gas prices can have on gas producers/exporters and the natural gas market as a whole.
According to BP, in 2019 global natural gas production grew by 132 bcm (3.4 percent). Of that, the U.S. accounted for 85 bcm, Australia for 23 bcm, China for 16 bcm, and Russia 10 bcm. The U.S. also led in LNG supply growth with 19 bcm of new capacity. Russia followed with an additional 14 bcm and Australia with 13 bcm. Qatar remained the world’s largest LNG exporter with 107.1 bcm of gas exported in 2019.
A higher share of trade in LNG should support the trend that we have seen in the recent years: an increasingly global, flexible, deeper, and more liquid natural gas market that relies more on shorter-term contracts and spot purchases and where pricing is inferred from market conditions (indexed to hub prices) rather than indexed to prices of oil. The trend is most likely to continue as, according to BP, LNG trade should overtake inter-regional pipeline shipments in late 2020s. As per McKinsey, over half of the new LNG capacity is expected to come from the U.S. while according to the recent IEA report, the U.S. could become the largest LNG seller already in 2025, surpassing Qatar. This is significant since U.S. LNG has been the driving force in the increase in flexibility of the current natural market by modeling hub-base, short-term, and flexible contracts.
According to multiple accounts and models (for example here, here, here, and here), the expected growth in gas/LNG production in the next few years would not be immediately met with a demand strong enough to significantly raise the price. In addition, in the next year or so, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are likely to weaken global demand for natural gas beyond what has been generally expected. The market should tighten and prices may go up, however, after 2025. In fact, natural gas seems to be the only fossil fuel that would experience significant growth over the next two decades. This growth is expected to come mainly from the developing world, most predominantly from China but also India and other countries in Southeast Asia. We could also see some growth in places such as Eastern Europe where lots of natural gas infrastructure has been recently completed, under construction or planned and where we expect an increase in coal-to-gas switching based on the European Union’s goal to decarbonize.
How can these importing countries make the most of the next five years of relatively cheap and flexible gas supply?
While significant in terms of potential benefits, five years of relatively cheap natural gas is still a short-term focus. And, if not accompanied by a longer-term strategy, the short-term benefits for importers may result in a set of long-term unintended, negative consequences:
- Export capacity unable to match growing demand, i.e. if some of the currently planned LNG capacity gets either cancelled or postponed due to short-term factors such as the COVID-19 pandemic, less interest by stretched investors, and/or consecutive warm winters. Meanwhile meeting additional LNG demand in 2027-28 could require more than $400 billions of investment across the LNG value chain, as reported by McKinsey. The mismatch can result in significant price hike affecting growing economies.
- Lower than otherwise expected liquidity, flexibility, and diversification of the global natural gas market: Coming into 2020 projects relying on market fundamentals have been expected to deliver over half of the new LNG supply into 2035. The same projects, however, are more likely to be cancelled or delayed based on inauspicious conditions such as those related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Less likely to be affected are projects that are policy/government driven, such as in Qatar or Russia. Hence, not only the next few years may be disproportionately affecting some suppliers but also negative effects are likely to be systematic, i.e. more likely to impact market-oriented additions to LNG export capacity that have provided the most flexible contracting terms such as those offered by the U.S. suppliers.
- Lower energy security: a. delayed and/or cancelled infrastructure can render markets less diversified, less interconnected, and less likely to balance supply and demand; b. potential spikes in prices of natural gas in the future can have negative effect on gas-importing economies, especially if they become more reliant on natural gas due to current low pricing; c. in least developed/diversified natural gas markets, dominant suppliers could use their position for economic (high prices) and/or geopolitical ends.
Current low natural gas prices can and should encourage countries to consider natural gas as part of their energy portfolio. This includes in particular coal-to-gas switching as a strategy to support emission reductions and climate goals. However, such decisions need to be strategic so they can support those countries’ goals and economies further into the future than the next five years of what looks like a buyer-friendly natural gas market. While enjoying low spot pricing and even lower contract prices (as these are related to hub and, currently very low-priced oil) importing countries should think long-term. One way to do so, is to commit to future long-term contracts that consider current and future market conditions (e.g., global balance of export and import capacity). Given the difficult situation many LNG exporters are currently in, such commitment could not only be welcomed but also provide very beneficial contract terms long into the future. From a market perspective, it could also help with:
- Preserving competition: with contract commitments, new and planned infrastructure is more likely to attract investment and getting financed. This is particularly important for market-driven projects like those in the U.S. or Australia.
- Moderating the long-term pricing: as more projects from variety of competing producers can be completed on time to balance expected demand growth and ensure less volatile price environment.
Surely, change in economic conditions and growth in natural gas demand should see another investment rush as higher prices will likely encourage expansion of LNG capacity. However, such expansion will not be immediate and may take five years or more to come online. And for importing economies, that would mean several years of expensive gas that could negatively impact their growth trajectory.