It’s been a big week for American energy exports, as tankers carrying the first U.S. crude cargoes in some 40 years have made their way across the Atlantic while the first-ever shipment of liquified natural gas (LNG) departed a Louisiana port. But while U.S. supplies of oil and gas have gotten a kind of turbo-boost in recent years thanks to fracking, their introduction to global markets isn’t coming at a great time. The price of oil has plunged since June of 2014 on a global glut, and we haven’t yet seen its floor. Similarly, demand in the world’s LNG market is struggling to meet the copious amounts of new supplies coming online.
In a recent review of the 2015 LNG market, Woods Mackenzie paints a picture of slack demand and burgeoning supply, and a corresponding drop in LNG prices. When U.S. investors were scraping together the considerable amounts of cash necessary to start construction on the massive LNG export terminals needed to send our shale gas abroad, they were eagerly eying Asian markets that were paying upwards of $15 per million British thermal units (mmBtu). Those spot prices were well above other regional markets, and were driven in large part by Japan’s sudden need to replace the power generation capacity it lost when it shuttered its nuclear reactors in response to the 2011 Fukushima disaster. Natural gas replaced some 44 percent of that lost nuclear power generation, and because the island nation isn’t itself rich in hydrocarbons, that only happened by dramatically ramping up LNG imports.
But 2015 effectively erased the Asian LNG premium, as Japanese demand shrank by 4 percent from 2014 and its own LNG spot price hit a low of $6.90 per mmBtu. South Korean imports dropped by a whopping 11 percent, and China recorded its first ever annual decline in LNG demand, importing one percent less than in 2014. And even as Asian demand was shrinking, Pacific supplies of LNG grew significantly: Australia, already one of the world’s largest producers, increased LNG exports by 27 percent as compared to the year before. U.S. LNG boosters hoped Asia would be keen to buy our new exports, but that market is quickly becoming too competitive for Atlantic producers to justify the extra costs of sending cargoes halfway around the world—Atlantic to Pacific LNG flows fell by 16 percent.
However, all is not lost for America’s fledgling LNG export presence. Europe is increasingly anxious to diversify away from its Russian supplies of pipeline gas, and LNG is the likeliest solution. In the past, the Asian premium precluded European buyers from attracting the kinds of supplies they might have wished at the right price, but 2015 changed that calculus. By February of last year, Europe had doubled its LNG imports as compared to the same period in 2014, and over the course of 2015, the UK increased its LNG imports by an eye-popping 27 percent, while the Continent’s imports ended the year up 14 percent. This is a market with room for growth as European policymakers continue to try to wiggle out from underneath Putin’s thumb, and geographically it’s one U.S. exports could serve.
Even closer to home, the Americas could be an important market for U.S. LNG exporters to supply—this region accounted for nearly 9 percent of LNG imports in 2015. There’s a surfeit of LNG sloshing around our planet at the moment, but U.S. exporters can still carve out a share of the market.