Revolutionary technology, such as drilling in shale-rock formations, doesn’t come around that often, but it changes how the world works when it does. Shale drilling has created a massive amount of recoverable natural gas reserves in North America that clearly have the potential to create a global market for the traditionally regional fuel. In addition, offshore drilling in frontier regions, including Australia and East Africa, has led to the discovery of even greater supplies of natural gas for export.
The new fuel destined to come on the market seems likely to find a home. Industry estimates are for global gas demand to rise 2% a year through 2030, led by economic development in Asia. Demand from Europe is also on the rise, particularly in the form of liquefied natural gas as a way to diversify supply. Russia is a big source of natural gas to Europe, but occasional claims of less supply than desired from Russia, attributed to political concerns, have customers on the continent shopping elsewhere to ensure their fuel needs are met. A third avenue of demand is fuel-switching. The 2011 disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan following an earthquake and a tsunami proved a watershed moment in history. Not wanting to risk another such ordeal, Japan now favors natural gas over nuclear fuel to a greater extent, inviting more imports.
Connecting the supply and demand is the job of the growing liquefied natural gas, or LNG, industry. Gas is tougher than oil to ship from one continent to another, and needs to be chilled to liquefied form and put into tankers. Receiving facilities then turn the cargo back into a gaseous state.
So what are the impediments to the LNG story? One is that it’s expensive to develop. The process of finding and developing natural gas reserves, then constructing LNG shipping and receiving terminals, costs a bundle. But LNG plants typically only get built after customers sign long-term contracts, assuring a minimum level of profitability.
Adding to the expense in certain cases is that some of the places where supplies are bountiful are remote, requiring significant infrastructure buildup. Anadarko’s (APC) discovery off the coast of Mozambique, which lacks a deepwater harbor and adequate roads, is a prime example of the logistical challenges.
Politics also comes into play. Environmental opposition to hydraulic fracking as a means to extract natural gas is substantial in the United States and Canada. Development of LNG export facilities from these western hemisphere nations is the key to globalizing the natural gas market. There are currently eight LNG projects proposed for western Canada and a number of applications for permits to put up facilities in the United States. Only one LNG project, Cheniere Energy’s (LNG) in Louisiana, is fully permitted for construction stateside, though.
Opposition by environmentalists, as well as consumer and commercial interests who want to see natural gas prices remain at historically low levels, may limit LNG expansion. A big policy debate on the issue of energy exports is currently brewing in Washington and Ottawa. But there is probably too much tax revenue at stake to completely throttle the budding industry.
Investors have a few angles to play in the LNG business. Besides Anadarko, the major oil companies, including Exxon Mobil (XOM - Free Exxon Stock Report), Chevron (CVX - Free Chevron Stock Report), Royal Dutch Shell (RDS/A), and Total (TOT), are pursuing development projects. Then there are pipeline companies, such as Kinder Morgan (KMI), TransCanada (TRP) and Spectra Energy (SE), that expect to move the gas from fields to shipping points. Shares of engineering and construction companies, the likes of Fluor (FLR) and KBR (KBR), that build LNG facilities, round out the list.
Near-term financial, logistical, and political hurdles notwithstanding, LNG offers the promise of making the natural gas market global in nature in the coming 15-20 years. The expected deepening of the Panama Canal by 2015 will be a plus for LNG trade, too, allowing larger tankers to pass through.
At the time of this article, the author did not have positions in any of the companies mentioned.