A liquefied natural gas tanker at a port of the China National Offshore Oil Corporation in Tianjin, China. Picture: REUTERS/STRINGER
A liquefied natural gas tanker at a port of the China National Offshore Oil Corporation in Tianjin, China. Picture: REUTERS/STRINGER

London/Singapore/Rabat — The world’s top exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG) is ramping up production dramatically and undercutting competitors in a bid to squeeze them out of the market.

Qatar is dropping prices and pushing ahead with a $29bn project to boost its exports of the fuel by more than 50%, stymieing the prospects of new plants elsewhere. It’s also established a trading team to compete in the nascent spot market and pushing into Asia more aggressively, according to people familiar with the matter.

The strategy marks a shift for Qatar, which has barely raised production in the past five years and traditionally prioritised prices over market share. Increased competition, especially from the US and Australia, has forced the Persian Gulf state to become more nimble and attract buyers in Asia, a hotspot for gas demand.

The global transition to renewable energy is adding to the country’s sense of urgency. While LNG was until recently touted as a bridge from coal and oil to the likes of solar and wind power, it’s falling out of favour with some governments as they step up efforts to slow climate change.

“Qatar’s expansion plan is so huge that there are questions on the need for other supply options,” said Julien Hoarau, head of EnergyScan, the analytics unit of the French utility Engie SA. “It’s still the number one, but the US has never been so close, so Qatar needed to move if it wanted to keep its leading position.”

Several factors are playing into Qatar’s hands. China, one of the fastest growing LNG markets, has been reluctant to import more from the US or Australia due to trade and geopolitical tensions.

But Qatar’s main advantage is that it has the world’s lowest production costs thanks to an abundance of easy-to-extract gas, most of it contained in the giant North Field that extends into Iran.

Bonds coming

Qatar’s state energy company, which may soon sell up to $10bn of bonds to fund the gas expansion, said the project will be viable even with oil at $20 a barrel, 70% less than current levels. LNG contracts are typically linked to oil.

That’s enabling Qatar Petroleum to set pricing below what other exporters can manage, according to traders. The firm has sold LNG in recent months at about 10% of Brent crude prices, including to China and Pakistan, whereas it used to set the level at 15%.

“Nobody can compete with Qatari costs,” said Jonathan Stern, a senior research fellow at the Oxford Institute of Energy Studies. “They can do whatever they like and everybody will have to respond the way they can. And, especially when the market is in surplus and prices are low, that will impact the competition’s profits.”

QP executives have jetted across Asia over the past few months to ink export deals. Their efforts led in March to a 10-year contract with Beijing-based Sinopec, signed at 10%-10.19% of Brent.

Qatar’s ministry of energy and QP didn’t respond to requests for comment.

A few years ago, demand for LNG was projected to rise steeply over the coming decades. Gas emits less carbon dioxide than most other fossil fuels when it’s burnt, while renewable-energy projects were still too expensive to power electricity grids, factories and transport on a mass scale.

But solar and wind technology is improving faster than expected, helped in part by huge government green-spending programmes triggered by the coronavirus pandemic.

We’re not afraid

Even as Qatar seeks to make the most of its gas assets, there are obstacles to it reaching total domination. Many buyers want a diverse group of suppliers. Russia’s Yamal LNG project and the planned Arctic LNG 2 plant, led by Novatek PJSC, are among those that will remain competitive as Qatar ramps up exports, according to analysts at Citigroup Inc.

The biggest US LNG exporter, Cheniere Energy, said it’s unperturbed by Qatar’s moves. Some importers are attracted by American sellers offering more flexible delivery terms and pricing that’s not tied to oil, which has soared almost 30% this year.

“We’re not afraid,” Cheniere’s chief commercial officer Anatol Feygin told investors in May. “We’re part of a sort of diversification of supply and contracting structure along with Qatar Petroleum and our friends at Novatek.”

Yet US projects are among those most likely to struggle. At least 10, five of them in Texas and four in Louisiana, probably won’t secure enough financing to be completed, according to analysis from BloombergNEF.

Feedstock costs are part of the problem. American companies have to buy gas at about $2.50 per million British thermal units, way above Qatar’s wellhead prices of $0.30 or lower.

New suppliers in the US need spot prices to be at least $7.80 per million Btu in Asia and $6.80 in Europe, said David Thomas, an independent adviser and former head of LNG at Vitol, the world’s largest independent oil trader. For comparison, Asian rates have average about $6.80 over the last five years. The economics for producers in Australia and Africa are similar, Thomas said.

“The Qatari strategy appears to be maintaining its global market share and also maximising sales, before the gas market starts to shrink,” OIES’s Stern said. “It is a competitive and strategic rush. They recognise LNG demand will eventually decline as the world moves forward in the energy transition.”

Bloomberg News. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

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