As the recent crisis in Ukraine shows, countries continue to use energy as a geopolitical weapon. In response, importers of oil and gas may have to seek more flexible supply alternatives. This could mean more demand for imports of liquid natural gas, or LNG, as a backup to existing pipeline supplies. After all, pipelines can't travel from place to place, but ships can.
Benefiting from this trend will be companies with growing fleets of LNG carriers like Golar LNG LTD (NASDAQ:GLNG), its limited partnership Golar LNG Partners LP (NASDAQ:GMLP), Teekay Corporation (NYSE:TK), and its LNG partnership Teekay LNG Partners LP (NYSE:TGP).
Leaders in floating liquefaction and regasification technologies such as Royal Dutch Shell are also well positioned.
An example scenario
As tensions mount between the EU and Russia over Ukraine, and given the recent gas deal between Russia and China, Europeans are naturally concerned that the Russians may cut off the gas supply at some point. The shale gas revolution makes North America an obvious supply alternative, but how feasible is this?
According to Eurogas, the 28 EU member countries consumed 462 billion cubic meters, or BCM, of natural gas in 2013. Imports from Russia amounted to 23% of this, or 106 BCM. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that the U.S. and Canada produced a combined 821 BCM in 2013. So just a 13% increase in North American production, if shipped to Europe, could eventually reduce the EU's dependence on Russian gas. But how would the gas get there?
That's where LNG comes in. Liquefaction reduces the volume of natural gas by a factor of about 600, so the 106 BCM supplied by Russia could be replaced by 179 million cubic meters, or MCM, of LNG from North America. However, the U.S. has only one liquefaction plant, and that's in Alaska producing LNG for Japan. There's a plant under construction at Sabine Pass in Louisiana and one at Point Fortin in Trinidad and Tobago which can produce about 33 MCM of LNG annually. But even if all the Point Fortin LNG could be diverted to Europe, it would only replace about 1/6 of Europe's Russian supply. So lack of liquefaction plants is the first big obstacle.
Royal Dutch Shell is a leader in solving this problem through floating liquid natural gas, or FLNG, technology. Its new Prelude FLNG project off the coast of Australia has a capacity of almost 8 MCM of LNG per year. This technology moves the production and processing of LNG offshore, thus avoiding the potential environmental impact of land-based plants. Other LNG shippers are interested in this technology too. Teekay has expressed interest in developing FLNG capacity through newbuilds and conversions of existing ships.
Once the gas is liquefied, it must be moved by LNG carrier. According to Clarkson's, LNG exports totaled 528 MCM in 2011, so an additional flow of 179 MCM to Europe would require about a 34% increase in the global LNG fleet. Lloyd's Intelligence reports a total fleet of 370 LNG ships worldwide with another 107 in the order book, so the buildup is underway.
Finally, the LNG needs to be turned back into natural gas when it arrives. Europe's 19 import terminals had a regasification capacity of 191 BCM in 2012 according to Eurogas, and they're not operating at full capacity. A capacity increase of 50% would cover the additional 106 BCM that Europe would need. However, Europe may not need any more regasification capacity at all.
That's because companies like Golar are pioneering floating storage and regasification unit (FSRU) technology, which offers a flexible alternative to land-based plants. By the end of 2012, Golar had converted four existing LNG carriers to FSRU platforms, and had two more newbuilds on order. Golar's first quarter report said, "Increased geopolitical risk may create additional FSRU demand based on need for secure supply alternatives." Teekay also entered the FSRU market in 2010 through a 50% acquisition of the Excelsior, a ship owned by Excelerate Energy.
This is all just one example of how a region faced with geopolitical instability could begin a shift away from gas via pipeline to a more flexible LNG shipping option.
A Foolish look forward
Both Teekay and Golar are expanding their fleets. As of February, 2014 Teekay had 29 LNG carriers and another five newbuilds on the way. Golar, although smaller, is expanding more quickly. They had 13 ships in their fleet as of April, 2013 with another 11 newbuilds on the way.
With no end in sight to geopolitical instability, the demand for these fleets will increase as countries and regions look for alternative gas supplies. Look for news from leaders in FLNG and FSRU technology like Royal Dutch Shell and Excelerate. Watch companies such as Golar and Teekay that are deploying these technologies and expanding their LNG fleets.
By providing flexible energy supply options around the globe, these companies decrease the effectiveness of energy bullying. That's not only good for a Fool's portfolio, it also makes the world a safer and more stable place for everyone.
Scott Percival has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.