Monday, 18 March 2019 | 15:53
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Signposts for the gas outlook

Monday, 18 February 2019 | 00:00

Global gas markets, business models and pricing arrangements are all in a state of flux. There is great dynamism, both on demand and supply, but still plenty of questions on what the future might hold and what a new international gas market order might look like. The World Energy Outlook doesn’t have a forecast for what gas markets will look like in 2030 or 2040, but the scenarios and analysis provide some insight into the factors that will shape where things go from here.

The China effect on gas markets
Gas accounts for 7% of China’s energy mix today, well below the global average of 22%. But China is going for gas, and this surge in consumption has largely erased talk of a global gas glut. China’s gas demand expanded by a dramatic 15% in 2017, underpinned by a strong policy push for coal-to-gas switching in industry and buildings as part of the drive to “turn China’s skies blue again” and improve air quality. Liquefied natural gas (LNG) imports grew massively, with China surpassing Korea as the second largest LNG importer in the world. Preliminary data for 2018 suggest similarly strong double-digit growth, putting China well on track to become the world’s largest gas-importing country.

In the IEA’s New Policies Scenario (NPS), the share of gas in China’s energy mix is projected to double to 14% by 2040, and most of the increase is met by imports that reach parity with those to the European Union. Demand for LNG is set to quadruple over the same period, accounting for nearly 30% of global LNG trade flows. China has long driven global trends for oil, coal and, more recently, also for many renewable technologies. The “China effect” on gas markets is now becoming a pivotal element for those working in gas markets; this is a key reason why gas does relatively well in all the WEO scenarios.

There is no such a thing as ‘emerging Asian demand’
While China has been grabbing headlines with its unprecedented growth in demand, other emerging Asian markets – notably India, Southeast Asia and South Asia – are also increasing their presence in the global gas arena. Emerging economies in Asia as a whole account for around half of total global gas demand growth in the NPS: their share of global LNG imports doubles to 60% by 2040.

However, although the region is often dubbed “emerging Asia” as a whole, it is difficult to generalise about its gas prospects. Gas has been a niche fuel in some markets (such as India) while it is well established in some others (parts of Southeast Asia, Pakistan and Bangladesh). While there appears to be plenty of room for further growth in aggregate, with the share of gas in the region’s energy mix at less than 10%, this does not necessarily mean that all emerging Asian markets are poised to follow the path that China is taking. A wide variety of starting points and policy, supply security and infrastructure considerations make each emerging Asian market quite distinct. This requires a much more granular approach to understand the outlook for gas across this region.

Economics and policies need to be aligned for gas to grow
The case for gas can be compelling for countries that have significant resources within relatively easy reach, such as those in the Middle East or in much of North America. In these countries, there is scope for gas to displace or outcompete other fuels purely on economic grounds. However, the commercial case for gas looks weaker in many parts of emerging Asia, a key source of demand growth in our projections to 2040. Gas needs to be imported and transportation costs are significant; competition is formidable from amply available coal and renewables; gas infrastructure is often not yet in place in many cases; and consumers and policy makers are sensitive to questions of affordability.

Gas can be a good match for the developing world’s fast-growing urban areas, generating heat, power and mobility with fewer CO2 and local pollutant emissions than coal or oil. In carbon-intensive systems or sectors, it can play an important role in accelerating energy transitions. But – as China has shown – economic drivers need to be supplemented by a favourable policy environment if gas is to thrive. Without such a strategic choice in favour of gas, the fuel could be pushed to the margins by cheaper alternatives.

The main growth sector is no longer power
For now, power generation is the largest gas-consuming sector. Gas has some important advantages for power generation, notably the relatively low capital costs of new plants and the ability to ramp generation up and down quickly – an important attribute in systems that are increasingly rich in solar and wind power. But this is also the sector in which competition is most formidable; lower-cost renewables and the rise of other technologies for short-term market balancing – including energy storage – diminish the prospects for gas growth in the power sector, particularly in the Sustainable Development Scenario (SDS). A similar dynamic is visible in the use of gas to provide heat in buildings, where prospects are constrained by electrification and energy efficiency.

The largest increase in gas demand in the New Policies Scenario is projected to come from industry. Where gas is available, it is well suited to meeting industrial demand. Competition from renewables is more limited, especially for provision of high-temperature heat. Gas typically beats oil on price, and is preferred to coal for convenience (once the infrastructure is in place) as well on environmental grounds. Gas demand in industry is also projected to be more resilient in the SDS than power generation, where demand is far more sensitive to growth of renewables.

The rise of industrial demand in gas importing countries can provide the sort of reliable, ‘baseload’ demand that can underpin new upstream and infrastructure developments around the world. However, it also means less flexibility to respond to fluctuations in price, as industrial consumers can rarely switch to other fuels if gas prices rise, while power systems typically are more responsive and flexible in modulating their fuel mix.

The risk of market tightening in the 2020s has eased, as competition for new gas supply heats up
There was a distinct lull in new LNG project approvals for three years from 2015, but a pickup in approvals in the second half of 2018, led by a major new project on Canada’s west coast, is easing the risk of an abrupt tightening in gas markets around the mid-2020s.

Qatar is among the frontrunners developing new low-cost export capacity, based on its huge potential to tap into liquids-rich gas and leverage its vast existing infrastructure complex at Ras Laffan. But there is a long list of other potential export projects around the world, from the Russian Arctic to East Africa.

The extraordinary growth of shale output means that, by 2025, one in every four cubic metres of gas produced worldwide is projected to come from the United States. With a large number of proposed LNG export projects, the United States is likely to become a cost benchmark for a diverse set of countries looking to expand or announce their presence in international gas markets. International gas supply in the past has been quite concentrated, dominated by a major pipeline exporter (Russia) and a single giant of LNG (Qatar). Supply in the future looks increasingly diverse and competitive, with LNG taking an increasing share of long-distance trade.

LNG is changing the business of trading gas …
The ramp up of new destination-flexible, hub-priced LNG supplies coming out of the United States is providing a catalyst for change in the global gas market. For decades, international gas trade (both pipeline gas and LNG) was dominated by point-to-point deliveries of gas sold under long-term oil-indexed contracts between integrated gas suppliers and monopoly utility buyers.

This model has been under pressure for some time and is now changing quickly, with a host of new market players positioning themselves between buyers and sellers. Larger portfolio players in particular are growing in importance, contracting capacity at liquefaction and regasification terminals around the world, to service a diverse range of offtake contracts across multiple markets. Smaller independents and trading houses are also emerging, taking open positions in the market, buying and selling single cargoes to take advantage of arbitrage opportunities.

European and Asian utilities have meanwhile developed their own trading capabilities, evolving away from their traditional role as passive off-takers. This expanding middle ground between buyers and sellers has helped to underpin the growth of spot LNG sales, allowing for the re-selling, swapping or redirecting of cargoes, utilising a wide variety of short- and long-term contracts.

…but don’t write off traditional long-term contracts
These recent trends do not necessarily imply the end of long-term contracting for new supply: new projects remain huge multi-billion dollar investments that require significant commitments, and there are buyers who stand ready to sign up for guaranteed long-term deliveries: in 2018, Chinese buyers alone signed long-term contracts for around 10 million tonnes per annum. Other established buyers such as Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan are likely to continue to source gas via long-term contracts.

For buyers in emerging markets, the relative attractiveness of purchasing LNG on the spot market or via short- or long-term contracts depends to a large extent on the anticipated evolution of gas demand in their domestic market, and the associated appetite to take on supply and price risk. A high level of reliance on the spot market or short-term deals implies greater exposure to price volatility as well as competition with distant markets that may be willing to pay more for gas. Import portfolios in emerging markets are therefore likely to feature a balance of firm, flexible and uncontracted gas in order to match the price and volume sensitivity of a relatively uncertain demand profile.

Not all gas is created equal
Suppliers could do much more to bolster the environmental case for gas by lowering the indirect emissions involved in extracting, processing and transporting it to consumers. In WEO-2018, a first comprehensive analysis of these indirect emissions shows that, on average, they represent around a quarter of the full lifecycle emissions from natural gas. There is also a very large spread between the lowest and the highest-emitting sources. Switching from consuming the most emissions-intensive gas to the least emissions-intensive gas would reduce emissions from gas consumption by nearly 30%, equivalent to upgrading from a traditional to a new condensing gas boiler.

This analysis doesn’t change our conclusion that, in all but the very worst cases, using gas brings environmental benefits compared with coal. But there are ways to improve the picture and, in our view, producers who can demonstrate that they have minimised these indirect emissions are likely to have an advantage.

Eliminating methane leaks – especially via regular leak detection and repair programmes – and cutting back routine flaring are some of the most cost-effective measures. In fact, many methane-reduction measures could actually end up saving money. Operators are also starting to look at electrifying upstream and liquefaction operations using low-carbon electricity. Finally, investment in hydrogen and biomethane could reduce or bypass emissions and make today’s gas infrastructure more compatible with a low-emissions future.

The gas security debate is changing
We are beginning to see the contours of a new, more globalised gas market, in which gas takes on more of the features of a standard commodity. This environment creates a new context for assessing security. While the reliability of cross-border pipeline gas continues to form a crucial part of the energy security equation, the flexibility and responsiveness of global LNG supplies are becoming increasingly important indicators (as highlighted in the IEA’s Global Gas Security Review series).

As LNG supplies lead to more interconnected markets, local supply and demand shocks have greater potential to reverberate globally (as they do in oil markets). The extent to which LNG can adequately respond to such shocks becomes a responsibility that extends beyond governments and monopoly energy suppliers, to portfolio players, traders and shippers. Moreover, the evolving premium among some consumers for greater flexibility, while in some respects positive for security, also contributes to a disconnect between buyer preferences for short-term contracts and seller requirements for long-term commitments to underpin major new infrastructure projects; this could raise questions about the timing and adequacy of investment.

Gas markets are changing: some of today’s hazards might recede but policy-makers and analysts need to be constantly aware of new risks.
Source: IEA

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