After years of waiting, the United States is ready to start exporting natural gas — into a very different world from what it expected.
- By Keith JohnsonKeith Johnson is Foreign Policy’s acting managing editor for news. He has been at FP since 2013, after spending 15 years covering terrorism, energy, airlines, politics, foreign affairs, and the economy for the Wall Street Journal. He has reported from Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia and, contrary to rumors, has absolutely no plans to resume his bullfighting career.
The United States is finally set to start exporting some of its natural gas bonanza, potentially becoming not just the world’s biggest energy consumer but also a key provider of fuel for the rest of the globe.
If it happens, the American gas revolution could back Russia into a corner by unleashing a price war even as the ruble hits historic lows. But even that could have unintended consequences, helping cement rather than diminish Russia’s stranglehold over Europe.
In the few years since U.S. export dreams first took shape, the global energy market has been radically upended. Rosy forecasts of unquenchable demand for American gas in Asia have all but vanished. The oil-price plunge has poleaxed the economic appeal of U.S. gas. And other big suppliers, especially in Australia, are cannonballing into a now-crowded market, further clouding the prospects for American energy abroad.
“No question about it — it’s a very different world than when they started planning these projects,” said James Jensen, founder of Jensen Associates, a natural gas consultancy.
If, as Jensen expects, U.S. gas exports will have a “pretty rough time,” one place is poised to come out a winner from all the market mayhem: Europe. A flood of low-priced natural gas from the United States could help Europe try to meet a pair of long-standing goals: finding an alternative to natural gas from Russia and securing cleaner sources of energy to help meet climate-change targets.
U.S. gas exports will officially kick off in February or March, with the first shipment from Cheniere Energy’s Sabine Pass facility in Louisiana. Five other liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminals are under construction and will be operating by 2018. In all, the United States will have the capacity to liquefy, superchill, and export about 3.8 trillion cubic feet of gas a year. On paper, that would propel the United States ahead of the world’s current top LNG exporter, Qatar, but leave it behind a newly ramped-up Australia.
That’s the official forecast. In reality, the United States may have a hard time realizing its export potential, at least for the rest of the decade. That’s because, just as has happened in oil markets, there’s a glut of gas right when demand for the fuel is weaker than expected.
That’s most clear in Asia, which just a couple of years ago was paying sky-high prices of close to $18 per million British thermal units for LNG shipments; now, those prices have plunged to about $7 and are expected to head even lower over the next six months. That’s because most gas prices, especially in Asia, are still linked to oil prices. As the price of crude has plunged about 70 percent since mid-2014, so has the cost of gas for big importers like Japan, South Korea, and China.
“There’s no way U.S. LNG can land in Asia at that price,” said Leslie Palti-Guzman, director of global gas at the Rapidan Group, an energy consultancy.
At the same time, visions of huge and growing demand for gas in Asia have faded. Japan is the world’s biggest importer of LNG and in recent years was buying even more, since the country’s nuclear power plants were offline following the 2011 Fukushima meltdown. Now, though, Japan’s nuclear plants are coming back online, and demand for gas is going back down.
Likewise, a few years ago, China was growing at a breakneck pace and looking for cleaner sources of energy to help it fight massive air pollution caused by excessive reliance on coal. Today, China is struggling with — at best — middling growth and has a bevy of options to meet its gas needs, from Central Asia to new deals with Russia.
Further clouding the outlook in Asia is a gusher of hugely expensive new gas projects in Australia just now coming online. Better positioned geographically to serve Asian customers, those Australian projects will make it harder for U.S. gas shipping out of terminals in the Gulf of Mexico to head west across the Pacific.
But if not to Asia, then where will U.S. gas go? “I see Europe being the big beneficiary of the new market,” said Rapidan’s Palti-Guzman.
Gas deliveries pushed out of Asia could find a ready home at Europe’s numerous and underused LNG import terminals, she said. And European leaders are close to finalizing plans to import more LNG in a bid to break Russia’s energy stranglehold over the continent.
However, most of the big LNG import facilities are in Western Europe, while the countries that really need an alternative to Russia are in Central and Eastern Europe. Some, like Lithuania and Poland, have already turned to LNG to wriggle out of Gazprom’s clutches. And the European Union this week took steps to help the rest of Europe tap LNG by underwriting the construction of pipelines that could carry gas from west to east. Spain, in particular, has loads of LNG import terminals, but right now has no way to get that gas to the rest of Europe.
“I think there will be a lot more interest in using gas, both as a climate-change measure and to ease dependence on Russia,” said Bud Coote, a former CIA analyst now at the Atlantic Council. He just wrote about the prospects for U.S. gas exports to help Europe diversify its energy mix.
The flood of new gas supplies from the United States could have a paradoxical result, though, increasing rather than decreasing Europe’s reliance on Russia.
Just the prospect of U.S. exports has already forced Gazprom to cut prices to many European customers in recent years, giving Europeans access to cheaper energy than they’ve had in years. Relatively cheap Russian gas is so appealing that it has already caused divisions in Europe; Germany, for example, is eager to build new pipelines and increase reliance on Russian gas for commercial reasons, even as Brussels shrieks about the need to find alternative suppliers.
The arrival of physical cargoes of U.S. gas into Europe will only increase the pressure on Gazprom to either compete on price or cede share in what is still by far its most important market.
In the short term, that will be good for Europe, as it reaps the dividends of a price war between old and new suppliers of energy, just as it will be bad for Gazprom and the Russian state budget — like what is happening in the oil market today. But if Gazprom does keep adapting, by slashing its prices and changing the way it does business in Europe to keep its leading position, it could well cement its place as Europe’s ultimate energy supplier for decades to come — which is precisely what Brussels has spent years trying to avoid.
James Henderson of the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies in a new report describes this as a page out of the old Soviet playbook, when Moscow offered cheap energy to satellite states to win their fealty and maintain leverage over their economies.
“Politically, this strategy can also make sense for the Kremlin, as it can maintain Russia’s position as an energy partner for Europe, with whatever political leverage that provides,” he wrote.
Photo credit: TORBEIN RONNING/Flickr