The Case for LNG Exports: An Escalating Global Demand for Natural Gas

Natural gas is the world's fastest-growing fossil fuel, according to the International Energy Outlook 2013. The Energy Information Administration, which publishes this report once in two years, forecasts global natural gas demand to jump 64% by 2040 -- to a staggering 185.0 trillion cubic feet -- when compared against 2010 levels. Not surprisingly, this consumption growth is expected to be led by Asia and Africa.

What this means
Breaking down these numbers on to a consumption-per-day basis would mean that the world will consume about 507 billion cubic feet, or bcf, of natural gas by 2040. In 2012, global consumption stood at 319.8 bcf per day while production hit 324.6 bcf per day, according to the BP Statistical Review 2013. Simply put, the global natural gas market is huge, with colossal strides to be taken.

Source: Energy Information Administration, BP Statistical Review 2013

Who's going to consume this much?
Despite a mammoth forecast in global natural gas consumption growth, it won't be uniform across regions. Developing economies led by China, India, and Africa are expected to project the highest demand for natural gas. According to the IEO2013, consumption in non-OECD Asia will almost triple, from 13.9 trillion cubic feet in 2010 to a whopping 36.3 trillion cubic feet in 2040. The following chart by EIA provides a breakup in consumption patterns among developing Asian countries:

Source: International Energy Outlook 2013

China's insatiable hunger
Not surprisingly, China leads the pack for natural gas demand. In absolute numbers, the country's natural gas consumption is expected to shoot up a mind-blowing 360%, from 3.8 trillion cubic feet in 2010 to 17.5 trillion cubic feet in 2040.

Currently, China's demand is predominantly met by its domestic resources. However, indications are that the country will increasingly depend on imports in future. Next year, five new regasification terminals are expected to come online, indicating increased LNG imports. Last month, state-owned China National Offshore Oil (NYSE: CEO  ) got the nod to build the country's first floating terminal for liquefied natural gas, with an annual capacity of 2.2 million tonnes.

Turkmenistan currently accounts for 51% of China's natural gas imports, followed by Qatar at 16% and Australia at about 12%. But the world's largest energy consumer is least likely to depend on any one import source. With its new LNG facilities coming online, China will be looking more toward LNG exporters, Qatar and Australia.

In Australia, the Gorgon project led by Chevron (NYSE: CVX  ) is yet to come online. However, once production kicks off, total recoverable volumes are expected to be in excess of 40 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. PetroChina (NYSE: PTR  ) has already entered into long-term purchase agreements in this project. Similarly, China Petroleum & Chemical (NYSE: SNP  ) , better known as Sinopec, has already entered into a long term agreement to buy around 2.0 million tonnes of LNG per annum from ExxonMobil's (NYSE: XOM  ) Papua New Guinea facility, which is expected to commence production by late 2014.

To put it into perspective
The Outlook for Energy: A View to 2040, published by ExxonMobil, nicely sums up this consumption growth expected to be heavily concentrated among developing and emerging economies:

Energy demand in developing nations (Non-OECD) will rise 65 percent by 2040 compared to 2010, reflecting growing prosperity and expanding economies. Overall, global energy demand will grow 35 percent, even with significant efficiency gains, as the world's population expands from about 7 billion people today to nearly 9 billion people by 2040, led by growth in Africa and India. ... To put this into perspective, in 2005, Non-OECD countries had about the same demand as OECD countries. By 2040, their demand will be more than double that of OECD countries.

The following chart from the IEO2013 report puts the above statement into perspective by making a comparison between OECD countries and the rest for natural gas consumption:

Source: International Energy Outlook 2013

The Foolish bottom line
Natural gas prices in the United States are still low for economic development, thanks to abundant supplies. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has so far approved only one LNG export project, Cheniere Energy's (NYSEMKT: LNG  ) 2.6 bcf-per-day Sabine Pass terminal. The Department of Energy, on the other hand, has so far approved four projects, with the latest being Dominion Resources' (NYSE: D  ) Cove Point terminal in Maryland. But ultimately, all LNG export projects require FERC's approval. In all, including Cove Point's conditional approval to export up to 0.77 bcf per day, total LNG exports permitted have reached 6.37 bcf per day.

The case for LNG exports should only grow stronger from here.

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