(Bloomberg) — It’s been a roller-coaster ride for natural gas this year, with most of the time spent climbing to newer heights.
Spot contracts in Asia and Europe surged to a record, triggering factory closures and bankrupting energy retailers from Singapore to the U.K. Higher prices also meant storage facilities weren’t replenished as much as usual, and now they’re being depleted quickly.
The worst is far from over with frigid winter weather on the horizon for many parts of the world, while fears remain that the market may stay out of balance through much of next year.
What’s Up With Nord Stream 2?
Europe’s sky-high prices should plummet when the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia starts, as the new flows ease shortage fears. The problem is that no one is entirely sure when that will happen.
The 1,230-kilometer (764-mile) project is engulfed in bureaucracy, waiting for a nod from the German regulator and a review by European Union authorities. That means the continent may go through the bulk of winter without the extra billions of cubic meters Russia could pump.
The approval process could delay the start of operations until the spring or even summer of 2022. A “no pipeline” scenario could push storage to a critically low level by winter’s end, according to BloombergNEF. That could pressure governments to approve the pipeline in some way before then to keep households warmer and bills lower.
Will China Stay Hungry?
China’s seemingly insatiable appetite for liquefied natural gas keeps surprising the market, with the nation set to become the world’s biggest importer of the super-chilled fuel this year — well before analysts predicted.
The ongoing energy shortage is due partly to China’s need to power its economy while shifting away from dirtier fuels, particularly coal, in pursuit of ambitious climate goals. Economic growth for 2021 will exceed target, and the government said it is fully confident about next year — potentially leaving less gas for Asian rivals, Europe and South America.
“China clearly will have increased gas demand,” said Steve Hill, executive vice president at Shell Energy. “If China has to find solutions to reduce its emissions, gas will have to play a bigger role because, ultimately, some coal will need to be displaced.”
Who’s Building What?
From the U.S. to Mozambique, there’s a crowded field of LNG export projects vying for final investment decisions. After a lull in approvals because of the Covid-19 pandemic, new projects are getting cleared, with the latest being Woodside Energy Ltd.’s Scarborough development in Australia, part of a $12 billion investment plan.
American developers — including Cheniere Energy Inc., Venture Global LNG Inc. and Tellurian Inc. — were busy signing supply deals for their proposed export projects. The companies maintain they will secure financing next year.
The governments of Australia and Japan say the world needs more investment in upstream natural gas supply to avoid another shortage. Whether that materializes in 2022 could help determine whether there will enough gas at the decade’s end.
Can the U.S. Be No. 1?
Two new LNG export facilities in Louisiana could transform the U.S. into the world’s top exporter. The commissioning process has started for Train 6 at Sabine Pass and Calcasieu Pass LNG, and now it’s just a question of when they will send their first cargoes.
Sabine Pass already produced its first drops of LNG and is expected to be in commercial service by the end of the first quarter, about a year ahead of the train’s original guaranteed completion date. Using a modular approach for construction, Calcasieu Pass is receiving small amounts of natural gas as a feedstock for its first trains.
While the U.S. currently is No. 3 behind Qatar and Australia in terms of LNG production capacity, American output could reach the top spot if overseas rivals struggle with output issues or maintenance.
What the TTF?
Dutch gas trading isn’t just for the Dutch anymore. The Title Transfer Facility benchmark, as it is formally known, has become the Brent crude of the gas market with more participation from outside Europe, said Gordon Bennett, managing director for utility markets at ICE Futures Europe.
Liquidity in Asia’s spot benchmark, the Japan-Korea Marker, has jumped in recent years, but it still trails what’s traded as TTF, making the European index a more trusted choice with traders. Numerous overseas LNG supply deals, including purchases by Integracion Energetica Argentina SA and Korea Gas Corp., were linked to TTF this year.
“For traders, they increasingly use it due to value-at-risk, and it’s currently the main driver for price levels,” said Sarah Behbehani, managing director at BEnergy Solutions DMCC in Dubai. Asian LNG rates have moved in sync with the Dutch over the last year.
Where’s the Nearest Exit?
Debate about the fuel’s role in the energy transition will intensify for the next several decades. Besides being a high CO2 emitter, the whole natural gas value chain leaks methane, threatening to upend global efforts to curb greenhouse gases.
Companies face increasing pressure from investors, governments and consumers to bolster their green credentials. Italian energy giant Enel SpA set a deadline of 2040 for leaving gas behind, saying the fuel is no longer competitive for electricity generation. France’s La Banque Postale plans to exit the gas industry by 2030, becoming the first bank to make such a pledge.
Yet natural gas offers flexibility to a system based in renewables. It’s less polluting than coal, and it can be used to create blue hydrogen. BP Plc, Sinopec, Equinor ASA and Royal Dutch Shell Plc are among the producers looking to hydrogen as a way to be part of the next generation of energy.
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.