Friday, December 5, 2014

Russia and China’s Natural Gas Deals are a Death Knell for Canada’s LNG Ambitions

By Marin Katusa, Chief Energy Investment Strategist

In recent years, a number of Asian companies have been betting that Canada will be able to export cheap liquefied natural gas (LNG) from its west coast. These big international players include PetroChina, Mitsubishi, CNOOC, and, until December 3, Malaysian state owned Petronas.

However, that initial interest is decidedly on the wane. In fact, while the British Columbia LNG Alliance is still hopeful that some of the 18 LNG projects that have been proposed will be realized, it’s now looking less and less likely that any of these Canadian LNG consortia will ever make a final investment decision to forge ahead.

That’s thanks to the Colder War—as I explain in detail in my new book of the same name—and the impetus it’s given Vladimir Putin to open up new markets in Asia.

The huge gas export deals that Russia struck with China in May and October—with an agreed-upon price ranging from $8-10 per million British thermal units (mmBtu)—has likely capped investors’ expectations of Chinese natural gas prices at around $10-11 per mmBtu, a level which would make shipping natural gas from Canada to Asia uneconomic.

At these prices, not even British Columbia’s new Liquefied Natural Gas Income Tax Act—which has halved the post payout tax rate to 3.5% and proposes reducing corporate income tax to 8% from 11%—can make Canadian natural gas globally competitive.

These tax credits are too little, too late, because Canada is years behind Australia, Russia, and Qatar’s gas projects. This means there’s just too much uncertainty about future profit margins to commit the vast amount of capital that will be needed to make Canadian LNG a reality.

Sure, there are huge proven reserves of natural gas in Canada. It’s just been determined that Canada’s Northwest Territories hold 16.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves, 40% more than previous estimates.

But the fact is that Canada will remain a high-cost producer of LNG, and its shipping costs to Asia will be much higher than Russia’s, Australia’s, and Qatar’s. So unless potential buyers in Asia are confident that Henry Hub gas prices will stay below $5, they’re unlikely to commit to long-term contracts for Canadian LNG—or US gas for that matter—because compression and shipping add at least another $6 to the price.

Shell has estimated that its proposed terminal, owned by LNG Canada, will cost $40 billion, not including a $4 billion pipeline. As LNG Canada—whose shareholders include PetroChina, Korea Gas Corp., and Mitsubishi Corp.—admits, it’s not yet sure that the project will be economically viable. Even if it turns out to be, LNG Canada says it won’t make a final investment decision until 2016, after which the facility would take five years to build.

But investors shouldn’t hold their breath. It seems like Korea Gas Corp. has already made up its mind. It’s planning to sell a third of its 15% stake in LNG Canada by the end of this year.

And who can blame it? The industry still doesn’t have clarity on environmental issues, federal taxes, municipal taxes, transfer pricing agreements, or what the First Nations’ cut will be. And these are all major hurdles.

Pipeline permits are also still incomplete. The federal government still hasn’t decided if LNG is a manufacturing or distribution business, which matters because if it rules that it’s a distribution business, permitting is going to be delayed.

And to muddy the picture even further, opposition to gas pipelines and fracking is on the rise in British Columbia and elsewhere in Canada. While fossil fuel projects are under fire from climate alarmists the world over, Canadian environmentalists are also angry that increased tanker traffic through its pristine coastal waters could lead to oil spills.

Canada is now under the sway of radical environmental groups and think tanks like the Pierre Elliot Trudeau Foundation, which take as a given that Canada should shut down its tar sands industry altogether. For these people, there’s no responsible way to build new fossil fuel infrastructure.

Elsewhere, investors might expect money and jobs to do the talking, but Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party, which has called for greenhouse gas limits on oil sands, is now leading the conservatives in the polls. (Just out of curiosity, does Trudeau plan on putting a cap on the carbon monoxide concentration from his marijuana agenda? But I digress.) If a liberal government is elected next year, it might adopt a national climate policy that would cripple gas companies and oil companies alike.

Some energy majors are already shying away from Canadian LNG. BG Group announced in October that it’s delaying a decision on its Prince Rupert LNG project until after 2016. And Apache Corp., partnered with Chevron on a Canadian LNG project, is seeking a buyer for its stake.

Not everyone is throwing in the towel. Yet. ExxonMobil—which is in the early planning phase for the West Coast Canada LNG project at Tuck Inlet, located near Prince Rupert in northwestern British Columbia—has just become a member of the British Columbia LNG alliance.

But Petronas was a key player. It was thought that the company would be moving ahead after British Columbia’s Ministry of Environment approved its LNG terminal, along with two pipelines that would feed it.

Instead, Petronas pulled the plug. We can’t know how many things factored into that decision nor whether it’s absolutely final. All the company would say is that projected costs of C$36 billion would need to be reduced before a restart could be considered. (That $36B figure includes Petronas’s 2012 acquisition of Calgary based gas producer Progress Energy Resources Corp., as well as the C$10 billion proposed terminal, a pipeline, and the cost of drilling wells in BC’s northeast.)

This latest blow leaves Canadian LNG development very much in doubt. In fact, most observers believe that Petronas’s move to the sidelines probably sounds the death knell for the industry, at least for the foreseeable future.
For more on how the Colder War is forever changing the energy sector and global finance itself, click here to get your copy of Marin’s New York Times bestselling book. Inside, you’ll discover more on LNG and how this geopolitical chess game between Russia and the West for control of the world’s energy trade will shape this decade and the century to come.

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