The Edge

New LNG projects – all dressed up and no place to go

When’s the optimal time to invest?

1 minute read

It was meant to be another boom year. After a record 70 mmtpa of new LNG capacity was sanctioned in 2019, at least as much capacity was lined up for final approval this year and next. Instead of a feast of new projects, there’s a famine.

Developers, cash-strapped by the collapse in oil and gas prices, have pushed back on capital-intensive pre-FID LNG projects. Massimo Di-Odoardo, Global Head of Gas Analysis, identifies three other factors.

First, the outlook for LNG demand. We are bullish, anticipating LNG demand doubles over the next 20 years, driven by Asia’s economic growth and increasing penetration – particularly where policy supports gas over coal. Our view isn’t dissimilar to Shell’s that the LNG market grows at four times the rate of oil demand in that period.

Our base case forecasts global LNG demand grows by over 50% from 370 mmtpa in 2020 to 550 mmtpa by 2030. Allowing for projects already under development, there’s a supply gap of 102 mmtpa to be met by pre-FID projects which need to be onstream by the end of this decade.

Longer term, intensifying interest from policy makers and investors in new technologies, including green hydrogen and CCUS, casts doubt on the sustainability of demand growth.

But there are risks to our demand view. Gas demand has held up relatively well through the Covid-19 downturn, certainly compared with oil. The pace and shape of economic recovery though is far from clear and so, too, LNG demand growth in the next few years. Longer term, intensifying interest from policy makers and investors in new technologies, including green hydrogen and CCUS, casts doubt on the sustainability of demand growth.

Second, the rising influence of spot LNG prices on project economics. The traditional oil price-linked contracts and firm offtake agreements that have supported the financing of new projects are fading into history. Many projects today rely on equity lifting, with joint venture partners taking the LNG into their own portfolios. The attraction is flexible volumes that can be sold to any buyer and capture the best price.

But it also means rising exposure to spot LNG prices. Japan spot LNG prices have ranged from over US$11/mmbtu in 2018 to as low as US$2.10/mmbtu early this year, underlining the volatility and risk in running an open spot gas position.

Third, scrutiny of carbon intensity. ESG has leapt to the top of the agenda for LNG producers and buyers alike. LNG’s track record on emissions isn’t good. Inert gases including CO2 must be removed before liquefaction and typically are vented into the atmosphere. Liquefaction itself is energy intense, usually fuelled by produced gas.

In future, carbon footprint will be one factor determining how attractive an LNG project is to developers and buyers, and will influence the price it can command. New projects will have to be squeaky clean: developers will seek to electrify the liquefaction process (renewables where possible) and capture waste gases. Project economics will also be affected by carbon price assumptions.

Which pre-FID projects will fill the 102-mmtpa supply gap in 2030? First up are the mega-trains of Qatar’s low unit cost North Field East, which should be sanctioned in the coming months. This project on its own will absorb 32 mmtpa, negating the need for new supply from other sources until the late 2020s and pushing out FIDs for projects elsewhere by two to three years. Qatar believes it has another 16 mmtpa up its sleeve at North Field South that it could also develop.

So contestable demand for the rest is 70 mmtpa at best in 2030. A dozen or more projects from PNG, Australia, Mozambique, West Africa, Russia and North America, with combined capacity of more than 150 mmtpa, will be vying for their share.

The costs of integrated projects are discounted at 12%. Segmented projects – at 10% discount rate for LNG plant, 15% discount rate for upstream. Taxes are included. US Upstream assumption = 115% X Henry Hub (US$3.29/mmbtu – equivalent to average of long term H1 2020 Henry Hub forecast between 2026 and 2035) *The reference prices indicated by company logos indicate the long term prices used by companies for the purposes of valuing their assets. Assumed to be in Real terms (2020) from 2023.

How can prospective developers gain a better understanding to help support their big decisions? Wood Mackenzie’s new Global Gas Model Next Generation allows investors to analyse global gas market fundamentals and price formation; how LNG cash cost economics, coal-to-gas switching and shipping costs shape price differentials between the US, Europe and Asia markets; and how the cost stack for pre-FID projects evolves over time to meet any particular demand scenario. The model provides a framework to understand a project’s profitability under current market uncertainties.

We’ll be discussing LNG market dynamics, the investment outlook and lifecycle emissions for LNG projects at our Energy Summit (6 to 8 October 2020).