Trinidad faces competition for markets like Dominican Republic.
BY JEREMY MARTIN
News that Houston-based Cheniere Energy had signed a liquefied natural gas, or LNG, purchase agreement with the BG Group roared across the energy world recently.
In May, Cheniere announced approval by the U.S. Department of Energy to export over 800 billion cubic feet of natural gas per year from its Gulf Coast Sabine Pass project.
But the late-October announcement of the Cheniere-BG contract turns speculation into the reality of a long-term LNG purchase agreement to move natural gas from the United States to international gas markets.
The deal further upends the U.S. natural gas world. For one, it firmly underscores the 180 degree pivot away from building dozens of LNG importation projects ringing the coast of the United States over the past decade. And it stresses that the surplus of inexpensive natural gas could enable the U.S. to become an important exporter of LNG to the global marketplace.
Two other critical points and impacts should be considered as part of the Cheniere announcement and the broader story unfolding: the implications for natural gas prices and its significance for hemispheric energy security.
Let’s take the price issue first.
For years, natural gas has had linkages to oil prices, especially in Europe. But, unlike oil, gas has not traditionally been a globally traded commodity. Historically, it was primarily moved by pipeline hence creating regional markets with fairly distinct prices across the globe.
LNG has dramatically altered that framework and set off the notion of a price convergence. But despite such prognostications, the Atlantic and Pacific Basins have remained markets with distinct prices. Natural gas sells for roughly 4 dollars per million BTU in the U.S. but as high as 16 dollars in Japan and Asia.
The shale gas revolution may be the final piece that will mark a new era that sees the U.S. as a global natural gas exporter and, perhaps most importantly, driving the natural gas price convergence long expected from LNG.
Beyond price, another key impact is Western Hemisphere energy security.
For years, Trinidad and Tobago has been the leading exporter of LNG in the region, providing the heretofore natural gas-starved U.S. market with 70 percent of its LNG imports.
LNG from Trinidad and Tobago has also been dispatched across the hemisphere to re-gasification facilities in Canada, Chile, the Dominican Republic, and Argentina. Indeed, it was Trinidadian gas delivered to Chile’s Quintero port and LNG receiving terminal in 2009 that officially marked that country’s integration into the global LNG market.
Long a natural gas exporter, Argentina has since 2004 been incapable of meetings its own natural gas demand. Indeed, LNG imports from Trinidad & Tobago in recent years have increasingly served as crucial natural gas supplies for Argentina’s tenuous and complicated energy matrix, particularly during the southern hemisphere winter.
But it is perhaps the Dominican Republic that provides the most useful discussion point. In just under ten years, Trinidadian LNG gas has come to represent one-third of the nation’s total energy matrix and is increasingly used in the transport sector. And it impact on the nation’s strapped power sector has been immense with annual power sector savings of roughly $600 million according to some accounts.
The example of the Dominican Republic and imports from Trinidad & Tobago bears mentioning for two reasons.
First is that the success of Trinidadian LNG for the nation has led to a boom in natural gas demand not entirely satisfied of late.
Secondly, and perhaps most interesting, is that the same firm at the center of the LNG export news in the U.S. also inked an MOU earlier this year to send LNG from the U.S. to the Dominican Republic. Indeed, Cheniere’s February agreement with Basic Energy to provide the power producer with natural gas supplies could serve to both further diversify the nation’s energy matrix as well as its newfound natural gas dependency.
Trinidad & Tobago, pioneers of the Western Hemisphere’s LNG market, may be suddenly faced with competition for what has long been a relatively captive market.
Trinidad and Tobago energy experts express confidence that the nature of their gas pricing contracts remain sound in the face of these emergent issues. But there are also important voices in the twin island nation calling for greater attention by the national gas industry to the potential for small LNG trades, especially in the Caribbean.
Cheniere’s LNG export deal has served to shine an increasingly intense spotlight on the question of how great and at what pace LNG exports from the U.S. will unfold.
U.S. LNG's impact and reconfiguration of the regional energy market and price is an important corollary. A new era and restructuring of where and how natural gas importing nations of the hemisphere source their supplies could be at hand.
What is unquestionable is that the widely-circulated maps of proposed U.S. LNG import facilities that made their way around the natural gas conference circuit in the early 2000’s have been completely altered.
Jeremy M. Martin is the director of the Energy Program at the Institute of the Americas at the University of California, San Diego. The institute is a nonprofit inter-American organization focused on economic development in the Western Hemisphere. Martin can be reached at [email protected].
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