Demand for liquefied natural gas has boomed during the past few years, and oil majors Chevron (NYSE:CVX), ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM), Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE:RDS-B), and ConocoPhillips (NYSE:COP) have all rushed to get in on the action.
But some of these companies are set to benefit more than others.
Demand rising faster than supply
Estimates suggest that global natural gas demand has grown by about 2.7% per year since 2000. However, global LNG demand has risen by an estimated 7.6% per year over the same period. Many predict that this growth in demand will continue.
In fact, according to some estimates, global LNG demand could almost double from 2012 to 2030 as the economies of China, India, Japan, and South Korea continue to grow and require additional energy.
This surging demand for the super-cooled natural gas has, unsurprisingly, pushed prices sky-high.
According to ICIS, the world's largest petrochemical market information provider, the LNG contract for delivery last January closed at $18.78 per million British thermal units, or MMBtu, for the highest monthly level ever recorded by the organization.
Companies within the energy sector have rushed to meet this demand, and supply and demand should soon equalize.
Indeed, as new projects come onstream through 2020, the price of LNG for delivery to Asia is expected to slide back to $14 per MMBtu, or $12 in the worst-case scenario.
Unfortunately, this could pose a problem for some companies that have rushed to start LNG production projects -- costs have skyrocketed, leaving many projects looking like they might end up being unprofitable.
For example, Chevron's two Australian LNG projects, Gorgon and Wheatstone, upon completion are expected to produce LNG for a cost of about $12 per MMBtu. Add shipping costs to this production cost and there is little room for profit if the price of LNG falls to $14.
It's not just Chevron. The majority of Australian LNG projects are expected to report production costs of roughly $12 per MMBtu.
However, Shell's floating LNG project, Prelude, is expected to be something of a low-cost producer, with expenses anticipated in the neighborhood of $8 per MMBtu produced.
In addition, Exxon's Papua New Guinea project is also expected to report costs close to $8 per MMBtu. But even these costs are high when compared to other LNG facilities around the world.
Angola and Nigeria are producing LNG for $4 per MMBtu, Brunei is producing for $3 per MMBtu, and Quatar is reporting a cost of roughly $2.50 per MMBtu of LNG production. Of all the majors operating LNG projects within Australia, ConocoPhillips' Darwin operation carries the lowest cost; the company is reporting a production expense of about $3 per MMBtu.
The reason is simple: Construction started in 2003 and the plant was up and running by 2006, just before wages and prices across Australia started to spike thanks to the mining boom.
Production of liquefied natural gas is one of Big Oil's avenues for growth, but with costs spiraling the value of these projects is questionable.
That said, Conoco's Darwin project is one of the LNG industry's lowest-cost facilities, which is great news for the company. On the other hand, Chevron is stuck with the industry's most expensive projects in the forms of Gorgon and Wheatstone.