Drilling for gas is about to witness a massive paradigm shift.
Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE: RDS-A ) (NYSE: RDS-B ) is planning to build the world's largest floating offshore facility, a project that promises to change the offshore drilling game. The company is going ahead with a $10 billion liquefied natural gas project to set up a mammoth floating structure which is nearly half a kilometer long.
Gas drilling 2.0
Shell knows how to stay ahead of the game. Until now, the company's focus was on the Gulf of Mexico. As Fool analyst David Smith points out, the company is already on its way to becoming the industry leader in putting rigs to work in the Gulf of Mexico. But, being the first to get new exploratory permits in the Gulf, it seems, is not quite enough. All along, Shell was working quietly to get a head-start in revolutionizing natural gas production thousands of miles away from the Gulf Basin.
The perfect storm
Shell is working to create a 600,000 tonne structure that will be a technological marvel, capable of surviving even Category 5 cyclones -- or so they claim. Naturally, the company does not want to lose out on production even during a natural calamity.
The facility is slated to tap an eye-popping 3 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) from the Prelude gas field, an offshore site 200 km off the Australian coast. It's worth mentioning that this facility eliminates the need to liquefy natural gas on land, and instead does the job on its own for delivery to global markets. Thus, the company is vertically integrating itself at the site of exploration -- a fairly revolutionary concept, especially that far off shore.
Shell's dedication in identifying offshore gas resources is worth lauding. Onshore resources are fast being snapped up and the next biggest thing is venturing out into deep water. To be a step ahead in unchartered territory is undoubtedly changing the game. Perhaps too much?
Not a one-man race
Fellow Big Oil components Chevron (NYSE: CVX ) and ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM ) are obviously breathing down the company's neck. According to Evaluate Energy, Chevron is now, by far, the fastest growing LNG producer in the world. The company's $45 billion Gorgon LNG project in Western Australia is on course for first gas in 2014. ExxonMobil and Shell also have a stake in this field.
Let's not forget that Exxon sees a shift toward gas to meet energy demands. Asian demand is soaring. Exxon's 20-year contract with PetroChina (NYSE: PTR ) , worth $41 billion, shows why companies want to feed off this larger demand. But the big question is for how long would onshore resources satisfy these demands? Probably not for long, which is why Shell is moving farther and farther away.
Fuelling the demand
LNG is fast becoming the fuel to own in Asia with demand picking up at fantastic rate. In fact, according to the Energy Information Administration, consumption of natural gas among non-OECD countries is projected to go up from 55 Tcf in 2007 to 92 Tcf in 2035 -- a sharp 68% rise.
Due to the Fukushima nuclear meltdown in March, demand for natural gas for power generation in Japan is estimated to go up by 5 billion cubic feet in 2011. This will certainly benefit Marathon Oil (NYSE: MRO ) and ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP ) , whose southern Alaska facility has been exporting LNG to Japan for four decades. The world's largest importer of LNG accounts for a substantial chunk of global imports at 36%.
India and China are not too far behind, and it's only a matter of time before they catch up with others in the import game. The two countries currently lead the growth for natural gas demand in non-OECD Asia. Combined consumption between 2007 and 2035 is projected to be a huge 10.2 Tcf. It's little wonder why Shell has chosen to station its floating plant near countries with high demand.
A Foolish takeaway
No doubt, Shell has got a head-start in megascale, off-shore LNG exploration -- but only on paper. By the time the plant becomes operational in 2017, I'm sure we can expect a few more such announcements. Either way, I think it's safe to say that natural gas is here to stay. Artic reserves won't remain buried for long. These floating plants will most likely make a foray there in the not-so-distant future. Fools should take special notice.