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With global demand for natural gas expected to increase sharply over the next decade, several countries around the world are recognizing the massive potential in exporting liquefied natural gas.
In the U.S., for instance, the Department of Energy has already granted approval to four LNG export ventures, the first of which was Cheniere Energy's (NYSEMKT: LNG ) Sabine Pass terminal in Louisiana, which received approval back in 2011.
Besides the U.S., other regions around the world though to have huge LNG export potential include Canada, East Africa, Russia, and Israel. Currently, however, one nation is the clear global leader in exporting LNG: Qatar.
Let's take a closer look at Qatar's bounty of natural gas and two energy companies with a dominant presence in the nation's LNG sector.
Qatar's LNG bounty
Qatar is a sovereign Arab state located in the Arabian Peninsula that borders Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf. Last year, it produced some 157 billion cubic meters of natural gas, making it the world's fourth largest producer of natural gas.
However, with the majority of its gas exported in the form of LNG, it holds the enviable title of the world's largest LNG exporter. Last year, Qatari LNG export volumes totaled 105.4 billion cubic meters, dwarfing those of any other country in the world and accounting for nearly a third of the global LNG trade last year, according to data from BP.
Qatar's LNG production is handled by two companies, Qatargas and Rasgas, which are both majority owned by Qatar's national oil company, Qatar Petroleum. Foreign oil companies own the remaining stakes. Qatargas, for instance, is partially owned by a consortium of Western oil majors including Total, ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM ) , Mitsui, Marubeni, ConocoPhillips, and Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE: RDS-A ) , while RasGas is 30% owned by ExxonMobil.
Western energy majors in Qatar
Amongst the Western oil majors present in Qatar, Exxon and Shell appear to be the clear leaders. Exxon is currently the biggest foreign investor in Qatar's LNG business, with large stakes in 12 of Qatar's 14 LNG plants. In 2011, it inked a deal with Qatar Petroleum to develop the Barzan gas project -- an $8.6 billion venture that aims to produce 1.4 billion cubic feet of gas a day by 2015 to meet growing domestic demand.
Also through its partnership with Qatar Petroleum, Exxon recently launched the four largest producing LNG trains in the world in Qatar. Each of the trains can deliver as much 7.8 million tonnes of LNG per year, which combined accounts for nearly half of Exxon's total liquefaction capacity of approximately 65 million tonnes per year.
But Shell's quickly catching up to Exxon. Over the past five years, the Hague-based oil major has invested nearly $20 billion in Qatar through Qatar Gas 4, a fully integrated LNG project equipped with both onshore and offshore production, processing, treatment and liquefaction facilities, as well as a fleet of LNG carriers, and Pearl GTL, a massive $20 billion plant that converts natural gas into higher-value petroleum distillates, both of which came on stream in 2011.
In fact, roughly 10% of Shell's production and cash flow is expected to come from Qatar Gas 4 and Pearl by the time those projects are fully operational. Already, Qatar Gas 4 delivers about 7.8 million tonnes of LNG per year, or roughly a third of the company's total sales volume of 20.2 million tonnes last year.
The bottom line
With global demand for LNG expected to double by 2025 to about 4.5 million barrels of oil equivalent per year, Qatar is likely to remain one of the largest global LNG players for years to come. And with Shell and Exxon emerging as two of the clear leaders in LNG, investors can expect Qatar to remain an integral part of their global gas portfolios for years to come.
Get in on the U.S. energy boom
While Qatar is the biggest LNG exporter in the world, the U.S. has rapidly emerged as one of the top two global producers of natural gas, along with Russia. To get a comprehensive look at three companies that are profiting from the current U.S. energy boom, be sure to check out The Motley Fool's special free report, "3 Stocks for the American Energy Bonanza." Don't miss out on this timely opportunity; click here to access your report -- it's absolutely free.