Canada is endowed with large conventional and unconventional natural gas with proven reserves of 2.2 trillion cubic meters and with a production of over 150 billion cubic meters (bcm) in 2016. With the aim of finding alternative markets and increasing natural gas share in the energy mix, Canadian natural gas investors have not only increased their investment in the domestic gas market by bringing various gas applications in different forms - such as gas to liquids or compressed natural gas - but also a large number of LNG projects have been proposed to expand global market share.
Over the last decade, Canada became a magnet for both local and international upstream investors. The proximity to the Asian market, strong economic prospects, political stability as well as vast resources and the possibility of developing integrated projects are some of the reasons that companies are attracted to Canada’s upstream sector.
Despite its large reserves and high production capacity, the gas industry has become more sensitive to demand and supply conditions, which has resulted in a sharp reduction in export markets. Given the current trajectory, Canada is at the crossroads of either becoming a regional and domestic player or becoming a major LNG exporter.
As a latecomer to the LNG club, the dilemma for Canadian LNG is to find a solution to competing with U.S. LNG, which is cheaper to develop and faster to implement. Australia’s LNG industry with its advantageous location to premium Asian buyers, despite its high construction and implementation costs, also poses as a serious contender to Canada’s market share.
The numbers of LNG export license applications increased to as much as 25, showing that the future prospects of the LNG industry look much brighter than before. Currently, the National Energy Board, the authority responsible for issuing licenses, approved ten projects. Among the various provinces in Canada, the West Coast and British Columbia have attracted many projects to their large resource basins.
Assuming that all 25 LNG export facility applications are approved, the National Energy Board states they would be given permission for 500 billion cubic meters (bcm) of natural gas, which is three times more than Canada’s current production. The Board forecasts that even in a high scenario case, Canada’s natural gas would not surpass an estimated volume of 182 to 238 bcm, in the short to medium term. This means, based on current levels, that all proposed projects would not be approved due to current insufficient production levels.
Nonetheless, some market analysts are optimistic about Canada’s LNG, and estimate that Canada will be able to build 50 to 55 million tons per annum (mtpa) of capacity after 2020, while others are less optimistic about future production and state that Canada’s LNG exports are a distant prospect because it is too expensive to compete with the other major players.
Senior Director of the Rice University’s Baker Institute - Center for Energy Studies, Kenneth Medlock, speaking at the Canadian Energy Research Institute’s annual conference in 2015 on the future prospects of Canadian LNG, expressed his very pessimistic views that he does not expect LNG exports from Canada until 2040. He suggested that all new LNG would probably come from either Australia or the U.S.
He could be right in his assumption given the range of challenges that face LNG projects from coming online before 2025. The slowdown in the pace of LNG projects stems not only from lower gas prices, high costs pressures, the late entry to the LNG market and higher capital expenditure, but is also linked to regulatory and labor market challenges.
The permission process for LNG terminals in Canada is complex, costly and requires numerous permits and licenses. It is estimated that the entire process would take at least two years. Additionally, Canada faces a skills shortage in the oil and gas market, particularly in the very specialized LNG skills set, and this is a major concern for any project developers.
Due to the high capital expenditure, Canadian LNG project developers are targeting an oil-indexed, long-term pricing formula over hub-based pricing or the costs-plus pricing mechanism. However, in recent years Asian buyers have increasingly preferred hub-based or cost-plus pricing over oil-indexed pricing. Even Canadian LNG project developers, who choose hub pricing over oil indexation, prefer Canadian hub pricing- mainly Alberta’s AECO - natural gas rates for Alberta’s consumer. However, Asian LNG buyers prefer the better-known Henry Hub pricing to Canada’s more nascent hub pricing mechanism.
On the supply side, the U.S. and Australia are ready to supply more gas to Asian consumers, but on the demand side, countries that used to consume increasing volumes each year have started to cut their demand. With decisions to construct and operate new nuclear power plants in South Korea and Japan coupled with slow economic growth and mild weather conditions over recent years, LNG demand has remained flat. China’s demand has also slowed down with the operation of newly built pipelines.
For Canadian gas producers, the realization of LNG projects in the short to medium terms faces greater competition both from the U.S. and Australia. Challenges stem from project costs and their execution. Regulatory and labor market weaknesses, along with the choice of LNG pricing and high capital expenditure all stand in Canada’s way in becoming one of the major LNG players in the world.