Next year, on a remote island off Australia’s western coast, the world’s most expensive liquefied natural gas export terminal will start shipping cargoes into a market that has changed vastly since 2009, when the project was approved. Chevron’s $54 billion Gorgon LNG facility, initially budgeted at $31 billion, was supposed to have begun operations in 2014. Labor disputes have delayed it, and lower LNG prices have potentially reduced its profitability.
LNG producers no longer have the bargaining power they once did. Weakening demand in Asia combined with an increase in LNG supply is giving the world’s biggest buyers not only cheaper gas but also more say on how contracts are designed. “The buyers have the upper hand,” says Neil Beveridge, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein.
LNG suppliers have historically been able to lock customers into 20-year contracts, with clauses that restrict the resale of gas. In Japan, the world’s largest LNG market, two of the country’s largest utilities have teamed up to gain leverage and demand more flexibility. Jera, a joint venture of Tokyo Electric Power and Chubu Electric Power, says it will no longer sign contracts that give producers control over the destination of the product.
If buyers succeed in negotiating better terms, the LNG market could become more like the one for crude oil, where producers, suppliers, and traders all compete for profits through constant buying and selling. That would require a fully functioning spot market, where supplies are traded for immediate delivery, a development that’s still a decade away, Beveridge says.
By then, Australia will be the world’s top LNG exporter, unseating Qatar. For the first time in eight years, exports from Qatar shrank in 2014. Qatar still provides about a third of the world’s LNG, but customers are lining up for new supplies from Australia and the U.S.
Gorgon will join three other LNG megaprojects that have been completed recently along Australia’s east coast and will tap the country’s vast gas deposits. In the U.S. five LNG projects under construction will export cheap natural gas unlocked by the shale boom. The first will begin exports in 2016. Over the next decade the U.S. is likely to become a net exporter of natural gas and compete with Australia to be the world’s leading LNG supplier.
After these projects come online, it may be a while before any others are built. “LNG is the last of those sectors where we’re seeing a wave of new projects hit the market,” says Daniel Hynes, a commodity strategist at Australia & New Zealand Banking Group. “It’s coming at a time when demand is weakening across the board. It’s clearly a tough market.”