Asian utility and gas company executives, speaking this week at a global energy forum here, have said that North America’s gas wealth could prove nearly as transformative across the world, leading to the first significant West-to-East gas trade and driving down prices in a region that consumes two-thirds of the world’s liquefied natural gas (LNG).
Lower gas prices would be particularly important for Japan, where utility companies are bleeding money to import fossil fuels while their nuclear plants sit idle. Japan owed its record trade deficit in the first half of this year to the rising prices of fuel, including LNG coming from Australia and Malaysia.
Japan and South Korea are the world’s two largest importers of LNG, and both have cut deals in recent months to buy gas from U.S. terminals, in some cases footing some of the development costs. For gas to be exported across the world, it must first be liquefied — essentially, turned into LNG — at facilities that cost several billion dollars. That LNG is then shipped in tankers that store the gas at 260 degrees below zero.
Because of the difficulty of transporting gas — it is moved by tanker or pipeline — it has traditionally been traded only regionally. As a result, there is no global price for gas; rather, there are four or five, and they often differ greatly. Japan and South Korea buy gas at $15 or $16 per million British thermal units. That is nearly twice the rate paid in Europe and four times the current rate in the United States.
Some analysts and executives say shale gas could potentially be traded at such quantities that it overhauls the way gas is priced globally, establishing a single rate for all regions. Even if that does not happen, the inflow of North American gas to Asia will put pressure on traditional sellers, particularly Russia. It will also give new options to energy-hungry nations such as China and India.
“Asian buyers want to realize the day when the convergence of gas prices occurs,” said Jang Seok-hyo, president and chief executive of the Korea Gas Corp. “We do not want to pay the so-called ‘Asian premium,’ and the shale gas revolution will play an important role in narrowing that gap.”
If all the proposed or planned American LNG export projects were to go online today, the United States would have the world’s largest export capacity. But the process will not be nearly that dramatic. The United States will not become a net exporter of LNG until 2016, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Moreover, the export facilities need special government approval before they can send gas to non-free-trade countries. South Korea is the only major importer that has a free-trade deal with the United States.
The Obama administration has allowed four terminals to export to non-free-trade countries, including permission last month for Dominion Resources to export from its Cove Point facility in Maryland. Such approvals are controversial because a major increase in U.S. exports could cause domestic gas prices to rise. In addition, environmental advocates say the process used to extract shale gas, known as fracking, can contaminate groundwater and cause other forms of pollution.
Those who advocate exporting, though, say the United States is taking too long to sign off on larger-scale exporting and is losing ground to Canada. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said last month that Canada and Japan would cooperate more closely on gas deals. Japan is also involved in two of the four approved export deals in the United States.
By the time U.S. or Canadian gas reaches Asia, it won’t cost the $3 or $4 per million British thermal units it does domestically. Investment and transportation costs will drive up the price. Speaking Monday, Shigeru Muraki, executive vice president of Tokyo Gas, estimated that the delivery price to Asia will fall between $10 and $11. Some U.S. energy officials said the price could be even higher — though below the current going rate in Asia.
LNG is attractive because it burns cleaner than coal. Because it does not require pipelines, it also allows easier linkups between buyers and sellers, probably increasing competition.
North American gas has become accessible in the past decade with technological advances that allow companies to access reserves in fine-grained sedimentary rock. The gas is extracted through fracking, in which water and chemicals are blasted at high pressure into wells. That pressure cracks rock and releases the trapped gas.
Other countries have shale gas reserves but face obstacles because of remote geography, inadequate technology or insufficient financing for development.
“The pace and scale of what we’ve seen in North America will not and probably cannot be replicated in the foreseeable future,” said Martin Houston, chief operating officer and executive director of the BG Group, an oil and gas company in Britain.