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ECONOMY | 07-04-2022 22:05

Global energy upheaval threatens years of natural gas shortages

War, the energy transition, severe weather and surging demand are creating a period of upheaval that is tightening natural gas supply like never before.

The natural gas market’s delicate balance is crumbling, putting the global economy under further strain as nations struggle to secure enough fuel.

War, the energy transition, severe weather and surging demand are creating a period of upheaval that is tightening supply like never before. Nations and companies are grappling to secure enough gas amid a global power crunch as economies recover from the pandemic. 

Natural gas is a key component in the global economy that keeps factories buzzing, lights on and houses warm. The competition for a finite supply of the fuel will only get worse if current conditions persist, with skyrocketing prices and supply gaps threatening to upend economies, boost inflation and grind supply chains to a halt.

“The market of today is one of the most challenging I’ve ever seen,” said Susan L. Sakmar, a visiting assistant professor at the University of Houston Law Center. “The world needs a bigger energy pie to share. Absent a global recession or more Covid lockdowns that slow growth, I suspect many parts of the world will face energy shortages.”

The world was already facing the risk of gas shortages this winter as a post-pandemic rebound in demand outpaced supply. The crunch was years in the making: countries became more dependent on gas as utilities curbed coal consumption and expanded intermittent renewable sources, while shutting nuclear reactors in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster. Meanwhile, suppliers were slow to boost production.

Luckily, milder temperatures across Europe and parts of Asia this winter curbed demand for the heating fuel and allowed utilities to squeak by on existing inventories. Traders now joke that praying for mild weather will become a seasonal tradition, since a snowstorm in Beijing or heat waves in the United Kingdom can trigger record-breaking price swings and crippling supply deficits.

And now the war has dealt an unexpected, devastating blow to such a fragile market.

Europe’s effort to halt most imports of Russian gas means that it will be going head-to-head with Asia for spare liquefied natural gas supply, while there isn’t enough investment in new production to meet surging demand. The European Union’s proposal this week to ban Russian coal imports puts further strain on the market, as power producers may need to turn more to gas to generate electricity.

Longer term, the LNG demand-supply balance is expected to get more out of whack, especially if Russian gas is removed. The global market could be short nearly 100 million tons per year by the middle of the decade, according to a Credit Suisse report last month. That’s equal to more than the annual demand of China, the world’s top buyer of LNG.

“Even before the Russia-Ukraine crisis, the global LNG market was tight with record high prices,” said James Taverner, a senior director at S&P Global. “Market tightness is likely to persist over the next few years. Prices are likely to continue experiencing wild swings from day to day.”

Already, natural gas spot prices are so high that the world’s top buyers in North Asia are choosing not to refill inventories with additional overseas purchases. They’re instead gambling that this summer will be mild, or a peace deal between Russia and Ukraine will result in a price drop, said traders, who requested anonymity to discuss private details.

LNG importers in China and India have drastically cut back spot purchases, and are instead maximising domestic supply and consuming gas in storage, traders said. This strategy will help to save money, but comes with an enormous risk that allows little room for surprises – a bet that hasn’t paid off recently. 

If there is a sudden spike in demand for gas, or if a contracted shipment isn’t able to be delivered due to a production issue, some of Asia’s top consumers may be short of gas this summer or next winter. They will be forced to go back into the spot market and buy very expensive shipments of the fuel, or curtail gas deliveries to customers at home.

Europeans will also be counting on a mild summer in Asia because of the need to pull spot LNG and fill their storage mandates. The European Union is pursuing a target of an 80 percent storage fill level by November, compared to roughly 26 percent now. That’s achievable if Russian pipeline gas flows are steady and European prices beat Asian rates to lure available LNG, according to BloombergNEF. 

Right now, Russia is continuing to supply the market and Europe has avoided sanctions on that gas. However, a sudden drop in Russian exports – either through sanctions or a unilateral action by Moscow – would wreak havoc, with demand destruction the only option to keep the market balanced.

Russian gas is so important to Germany that immediately halting imports would trigger a recession, according to Deutsche Bank AG CEO Christian Sewing. That would intensify the global dash for spare gas, sending prices to new heights and leaving many countries without enough fuel to power their economies.

The unfolding global energy crisis poses higher risks than the oil shocks of the 1970s, according to energy historian Daniel Yergin. 

“It involves not only oil, but it involves natural gas and coal, and it involves two countries that happen to be nuclear superpowers,” he said during a Bloomberg TV interview. If there is a disruption in gas deliveries, “you are going to see industries shutting down, you will see prices going up. It means that the macroeconomic forecasts will have to be lowered.”

For cash-strapped emerging nations across South Asia and South America, the situation is dire, as governments may be forced to curb electricity or heating fuels to households. Argentina forked out roughly US$750 million for eight LNG shipments for May to June delivery in a tender last month. That’s about 20 times higher than the price they paid for similar shipments in 2020, and threatens to send electricity bills surging. 

Pakistan is also in harrowing position, as the government can no longer afford to buy overseas shipments of the fuel and is struggling to find alternatives. Power plants in Pakistan are running out of fuel, and are pleading with the government to make more supply available, according to local reports. As prices remain elevated, fuel shortages are at risk of spreading to Bangladesh, India and Thailand.

“Energy poverty in parts of Asia could result as Europe sucks LNG cargoes away from their originally intended destinations,” said Saul Kavonic, an energy analyst at Credit Suisse Group AG.

by Stephen Stapczynski, Bloomberg

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