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Signposts for the gas outlook

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Authors: Peter Zeniewski and Tae-Yoon Kim*

Global gas markets, business models and pricing arrangements are all in a state of flux. There is great dynamism, both on demand and supply, but still plenty of questions on what the future might hold and what a new international gas market order might look like. The World Energy Outlook doesn’t have a forecast for what gas markets will look like in 2030 or 2040, but the scenarios and analysis provide some insight into the factors that will shape where things go from here.

The China effect on gas markets

Gas accounts for 7% of China’s energy mix today, well below the global average of 22%. But China is going for gas, and this surge in consumption has largely erased talk of a global gas glut. China’s gas demand expanded by a dramatic 15% in 2017, underpinned by a strong policy push for coal-to-gas switching in industry and buildings as part of the drive to “turn China’s skies blue again” and improve air quality. Liquefied natural gas (LNG) imports grew massively, with China surpassing Korea as the second largest LNG importer in the world. Preliminary data for 2018 suggest similarly strong double-digit growth, putting China well on track to become the world’s largest gas-importing country.

In the IEA’s New Policies Scenario (NPS), the share of gas in China’s energy mix is projected to double to 14% by 2040, and most of the increase is met by imports that reach parity with those to the European Union. Demand for LNG is set to quadruple over the same period, accounting for nearly 30% of global LNG trade flows. China has long driven global trends for oil, coal and, more recently, also for many renewable technologies. The “China effect” on gas markets is now becoming a pivotal element for those working in gas markets; this is a key reason why gas does relatively well in all the WEO scenarios.

There is no such a thing as ‘emerging Asian demand’

While China has been grabbing headlines with its unprecedented growth in demand, other emerging Asian markets – notably India, Southeast Asia and South Asia – are also increasing their presence in the global gas arena. Emerging economies in Asia as a whole account for around half of total global gas demand growth in the NPS: their share of global LNG imports doubles to 60% by 2040.

However, although the region is often dubbed “emerging Asia” as a whole, it is difficult to generalise about its gas prospects. Gas has been a niche fuel in some markets (such as India) while it is well established in some others (parts of Southeast Asia, Pakistan and Bangladesh). While there appears to be plenty of room for further growth in aggregate, with the share of gas in the region’s energy mix at less than 10%, this does not necessarily mean that all emerging Asian markets are poised to follow the path that China is taking. A wide variety of starting points and policy, supply security and infrastructure considerations make each emerging Asian market quite distinct. This requires a much more granular approach to understand the outlook for gas across this region.

Economics and policies need to be aligned for gas to grow

The case for gas can be compelling for countries that have significant resources within relatively easy reach, such as those in the Middle East or in much of North America. In these countries, there is scope for gas to displace or outcompete other fuels purely on economic grounds. However, the commercial case for gas looks weaker in many parts of emerging Asia, a key source of demand growth in our projections to 2040. Gas needs to be imported and transportation costs are significant; competition is formidable from amply available coal and renewables; gas infrastructure is often not yet in place in many cases; and consumers and policy makers are sensitive to questions of affordability.

Gas can be a good match for the developing world’s fast-growing urban areas, generating heat, power and mobility with fewer CO2 and local pollutant emissions than coal or oil. In carbon-intensive systems or sectors, it can play an important role in accelerating energy transitions. But – as China has shown – economic drivers need to be supplemented by a favourable policy environment if gas is to thrive. Without such a strategic choice in favour of gas, the fuel could be pushed to the margins by cheaper alternatives.

The main growth sector is no longer power

For now, power generation is the largest gas-consuming sector. Gas has some important advantages for power generation, notably the relatively low capital costs of new plants and the ability to ramp generation up and down quickly – an important attribute in systems that are increasingly rich in solar and wind power. But this is also the sector in which competition is most formidable; lower-cost renewables and the rise of other technologies for short-term market balancing – including energy storage – diminish the prospects for gas growth in the power sector, particularly in the Sustainable Development Scenario (SDS). A similar dynamic is visible in the use of gas to provide heat in buildings, where prospects are constrained by electrification and energy efficiency.

The largest increase in gas demand in the New Policies Scenario is projected to come from industry. Where gas is available, it is well suited to meeting industrial demand. Competition from renewables is more limited, especially for provision of high-temperature heat. Gas typically beats oil on price, and is preferred to coal for convenience (once the infrastructure is in place) as well on environmental grounds. Gas demand in industry is also projected to be more resilient in the SDS than power generation, where demand is far more sensitive to growth of renewables.

The rise of industrial demand in gas importing countries can provide the sort of reliable, ‘baseload’ demand that can underpin new upstream and infrastructure developments around the world. However, it also means less flexibility to respond to fluctuations in price, as industrial consumers can rarely switch to other fuels if gas prices rise, while power systems typically are more responsive and flexible in modulating their fuel mix.

The risk of market tightening in the 2020s has eased, as competition for new gas supply heats up

There was a distinct lull in new LNG project approvals for three years from 2015, but a pickup in approvals in the second half of 2018, led by a major new project on Canada’s west coast, is easing the risk of an abrupt tightening in gas markets around the mid-2020s.

Qatar is among the frontrunners developing new low-cost export capacity, based on its huge potential to tap into liquids-rich gas and leverage its vast existing infrastructure complex at Ras Laffan. But there is a long list of other potential export projects around the world, from the Russian Arctic to East Africa.

The extraordinary growth of shale output means that, by 2025, one in every four cubic metres of gas produced worldwide is projected to come from the United States. With a large number of proposed LNG export projects, the United States is likely to become a cost benchmark for a diverse set of countries looking to expand or announce their presence in international gas markets. International gas supply in the past has been quite concentrated, dominated by a major pipeline exporter (Russia) and a single giant of LNG (Qatar). Supply in the future looks increasingly diverse and competitive, with LNG taking an increasing share of long-distance trade.

LNG is changing the business of trading gas …

The ramp up of new destination-flexible, hub-priced LNG supplies coming out of the United States is providing a catalyst for change in the global gas market. For decades, international gas trade (both pipeline gas and LNG) was dominated by point-to-point deliveries of gas sold under long-term oil-indexed contracts between integrated gas suppliers and monopoly utility buyers.

This model has been under pressure for some time and is now changing quickly, with a host of new market players positioning themselves between buyers and sellers. Larger portfolio players in particular are growing in importance, contracting capacity at liquefaction and regasification terminals around the world, to service a diverse range of offtake contracts across multiple markets. Smaller independents and trading houses are also emerging, taking open positions in the market, buying and selling single cargoes to take advantage of arbitrage opportunities.

European and Asian utilities have meanwhile developed their own trading capabilities, evolving away from their traditional role as passive off-takers. This expanding middle ground between buyers and sellers has helped to underpin the growth of spot LNG sales, allowing for the re-selling, swapping or redirecting of cargoes, utilising a wide variety of short- and long-term contracts.

…but don’t write off traditional long-term contracts

These recent trends do not necessarily imply the end of long-term contracting for new supply: new projects remain huge multi-billion dollar investments that require significant commitments, and there are buyers who stand ready to sign up for guaranteed long-term deliveries: in 2018, Chinese buyers alone signed long-term contracts for around 10 million tonnes per annum. Other established buyers such as Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan are likely to continue to source gas via long-term contracts.

For buyers in emerging markets, the relative attractiveness of purchasing LNG on the spot market or via short- or long-term contracts depends to a large extent on the anticipated evolution of gas demand in their domestic market, and the associated appetite to take on supply and price risk. A high level of reliance on the spot market or short-term deals implies greater exposure to price volatility as well as competition with distant markets that may be willing to pay more for gas. Import portfolios in emerging markets are therefore likely to feature a balance of firm, flexible and uncontracted gas in order to match the price and volume sensitivity of a relatively uncertain demand profile.

Not all gas is created equal

Suppliers could do much more to bolster the environmental case for gas by lowering the indirect emissions involved in extracting, processing and transporting it to consumers. In WEO-2018, a first comprehensive analysis of these indirect emissions shows that, on average, they represent around a quarter of the full lifecycle emissions from natural gas. There is also a very large spread between the lowest and the highest-emitting sources. Switching from consuming the most emissions-intensive gas to the least emissions-intensive gas would reduce emissions from gas consumption by nearly 30%, equivalent to upgrading from a traditional to a new condensing gas boiler.

This analysis doesn’t change our conclusion that, in all but the very worst cases, using gas brings environmental benefits compared with coal. But there are ways to improve the picture and, in our view, producers who can demonstrate that they have minimised these indirect emissions are likely to have an advantage.

Eliminating methane leaks – especially via regular leak detection and repair programmes – and cutting back routine flaring are some of the most cost-effective measures. In fact, many methane-reduction measures could actually end up saving money. Operators are also starting to look at electrifying upstream and liquefaction operations using low-carbon electricity. Finally, investment in hydrogen and biomethane could reduce or bypass emissions and make today’s gas infrastructure more compatible with a low-emissions future.

The gas security debate is changing

We are beginning to see the contours of a new, more globalised gas market, in which gas takes on more of the features of a standard commodity. This environment creates a new context for assessing security. While the reliability of cross-border pipeline gas continues to form a crucial part of the energy security equation, the flexibility and responsiveness of global LNG supplies are becoming increasingly important indicators (as highlighted in the IEA’s Global Gas Security Review series).

As LNG supplies lead to more interconnected markets, local supply and demand shocks have greater potential to reverberate globally (as they do in oil markets). The extent to which LNG can adequately respond to such shocks becomes a responsibility that extends beyond governments and monopoly energy suppliers, to portfolio players, traders and shippers. Moreover, the evolving premium among some consumers for greater flexibility, while in some respects positive for security, also contributes to a disconnect between buyer preferences for short-term contracts and seller requirements for long-term commitments to underpin major new infrastructure projects; this could raise questions about the timing and adequacy of investment.

Gas markets are changing: some of today’s hazards might recede but policy-makers and analysts need to be constantly aware of new risks.

*Tae-Yoon Kim, WEO Energy Analyst

IEA

Energy

How ASEAN should step up to accelerate sustainable energy within the region

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ASEAN is favored to be the 4th largest economy in the world by 2030 after showing impressive economic growth in the last decade. However, to reach that goal, ASEAN member states need to make sure that they can provide reliable access to energy to support industrial development. Unfortunately, as the region still imports 40% of its primary energy supply with fossil fuels becoming the largest share, the promise of ASEAN economic growth is currently at stake.

Over the years, ASEAN has been known for its heavily reliant on fossil fuels to meet domestic demand. ASEAN Center for Energy has reported that more than 80% of ASEAN’s energy mix in 2017 was fueled by fossil energy with oil accounting for 38,2% of total share and followed by gas (23.2%), and coal (22.3%). Vietnam and Indonesia, as the largest oil and coal producers respectively, have become important players for energy-importing countries such as Thailand, Philippines, and Malaysia. This long historic record on fossil consumption has posed a threat for Southeast Asia to become the slowest region in the world to shift to renewables.

But even so, it doesn’t mean that the ASEAN member states haven’t made any efforts at all. Vietnam might have shown the greatest accomplishment in accelerating the energy transition compared to other countries. Between 2016-2020, Vietnam has successfully doubled its production of renewables from 17.000 to over 35.000 megawatts. The rapid growth of solar panels in just four years has even made Vietnam become the third-largest solar market globally by 2020. Furthermore, ASEAN has also witnessed promising growth in the use of hydropower. Lao PDR, as traversed by The Greater Mekong, has powered 98.8% of its national electricity with hydropower generators in 2017. It even exports its energy to Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia through the transmission lines and is looking for expansion to Malaysia and Singapore, aiming to become Southeast Asia’s battery.

Seeing these potentials for sustainable energy deployment, the next question would be whether it is enough to push ASEAN to phase out the fossil fuel industry. Unfortunately, the same report from ASEAN Center for Energy has estimated that fossil fuel would still provide the majority of energy supply in 2040 even if ASEAN member states adopt a progressive scheme such as APAEC Targets Scenario. This is because energy security still presents a sensitive issue for Southeast Asia, where fossil fuels are perceived to be more reliable and cheaper than renewables. In consequence, while ASEAN will witness an enchantment of renewables in the following years, it will also see the growing trend in the use of clean coal technology, especially in major producer countries like Indonesia and Malaysia. Even Vietnam, which is considered the most successful country in accelerating renewables, will continue to rely on coal due to such perception of fossil fuels. As long as fossil fuels are still reckoned to be the main asset  of energy security, ASEAN won’t go far with its transition.

The incapability of ASEAN member states to undertake adequate transition on their own, makes regional cooperation becomes crucial. So far, the two most noticeable cooperation that promotes energy interconnections within the region are ASEAN Power Grid (APG) and Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) Program. APG has been run under APAEC since 1999 to facilitate cross-border electricity trade and enhance the integration of Member States’ power systems. To date, 7 of 16 power interconnection projects have been completed mainly in The Upper West System (or in the Greater Mekong Subregion) and The Lower West System which covered Thailand, Peninsular Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. However, most interconnection projects are still based on bilateral agreements and thus have no integrated regional power architecture. One program conducted on a multilateral basis is Lao PDR-Thailand-Malaysia-Singapore Power Integration Project (LTMS-PIP), yet the trading is still limited to a unidirectional flow of electricity. The energy cooperation under GMS also presents a similar problem where all projects still occur on bilateral deals.

Although bilateral cooperation carried out under APG and GMS has helped the member states to fulfill their domestic demand, implementing a more integrated power grid with a multilateral trading system will enhance the region’s energy security. This is because a regional power transmission grid with multilateral exchange offers more alternative resources and geographic diversification that will lower the systemic risks on renewables infrastructure. For example, countries with abundant clean energy like Lao PDR can transfer their hydropower to areas of deficit such as Malaysia and Singapore. Whilst, at the same time, surplus energy from one country can be sold to another through the power grid. This is where the multilateral trading regime becomes relevant to improve the accessibility and stability of energy consumption. Additionally, an interconnected power grid can also attract more investment as large-scale renewables will become more profitable.

It is therefore very timely for ASEAN to step up the game by accelerating the construction of an integrated power grid across the region. Without a strong commitment and sufficient transition, Southeast Asia’s economy could plummet by 11% by the end of the century. An integrated power grid might be the best possible scenario to prolong ASEAN’s economic growth in the future.

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Energy

The Insane Energy Policies of the Biden Administration

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With the projected loss of over 5 million barrels of oil a day due to sanctions against Russia, as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the world faces an artificial energy crisis.  This crisis will throw the world’s economy into turmoil, and possibly throw the world into a prolonged economic slump. 

With the United States now relaxing sanctions against Venezuela in order to increase oil flow into the world energy market, and going hat in hand to the right wing Saudi Arabian government, the past policies of the United States are in a state of disarray.  By appealing to right wing governments in Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, the Biden Administration is allowing these governments to benefit from the Russia-Ukraine War, and punishing the American people by refusing to develop the ample supplies of shale oil that is in the United States.

What is glaringly absent from the Biden Administration’s energy policies is ignoring, and refusing to allow oil companies to develop the massive oil shale deposits in the Green River Formation.   The Green River Formation contains up to 4.3 trillion barrels of shale oil, which could be easily developed, and at a cost far below the average cost of developing either the current shale oil fields or the normal method of extracting oil from other traditional oil fields.

With the Biden Administration freezing oil drilling on federal land, the energy policy by the Biden Administration is quite literally insane.

The Green River Formation

The Green River Formation is located at the Green River in western Colorado, eastern Utah, and southwestern Wyoming.

The energy resources of the Green River Formation are not a true oil, but a form of pre-oil called kerogen. Kerogen is insoluble in water and in other organic solvents such as benzene or alcohol. However, when the kerogen is heated under pressure it breaks down into recoverable gaseous and liquid substances resembling petroleum. It is possible to break down this substance into synthetic oil.

Unlike normal processes of extracting shale oil called fracking, a process called pyrolysis is used. Pyrolysis occurs in the absence or near absence of oxygen. The rate of pyrolysis increases with temperature. “Pyrolysis transforms organic materials into their gaseous components, a solid residue of carbon and ash, and a liquid called pyrolytic oil (or bio-oil). Pyrolysis has two primary methods for removing contaminants from a substance: destruction and removal.”

The Hydraulic Fracturing Method

Hydraulic fracturing is used to recover oil and natural gas in oil shale deposits, where traditional oil drilling methods are not capable of recovering the oil in the rock strata. Hydraulic fracturing is also known as “fracking.” In order to recover the oil using fracking, a well is drilled into the rock strata containing the recoverable oil and natural gas. Then water, sand, and chemicals are injected into the well under high water pressure to continue to fracture the rock strata.

This then forces the oil and natural gas out of the well and is recovered into holding containers for further processing.

A huge amount of water is used during the fracking process. This is called the water cost. In a normal fracking procedure, between 1.5 to 9.7 million gallons of water are used to complete the fracking process for just one well. The water used during fracking becomes too polluted to be able to be used for human consumption. While the water used in fracking can be treated to return it to a potable status, the cost of doing so is so high, that typically the contaminated water is pumped into an underground chamber and removed from the rainwater cycle.

The technology to develop the Green River Formation does not use typical fracturing methods, so the water cost for the extraction is minimal. Because of the dramatically lower water cost, the breakeven point for extracting the kerogen is much less than traditional fracking.

The Green River Formation is a national security issue

The economic and political consequences of Russia invading Ukraine are now becoming clear.

One of the more obvious consequences has been the rapid rise in the price of oil. As of June 13,  the spot price of oil was $121.60 a barrel. Despite pleas from the Biden administration to Saudi Arabia to increase oil production, the Saudis have refused to do so. The United Arab Emirates appears to be siding with the Saudis and have also declined to raise oil production.

The Saudis are unhappy with the Biden administration’s efforts to renegotiate the Iran nuclear deal. They are also convinced that they have more in common with Russia in the current international environment. The Saudis are also angered by the pullback of support by the United States for its war in Yemen. This would appear to be the death knell of the agreement between the United States and Saudi Arabia where the U.S. guaranteed the national security of Saudi Arabia, while the Saudis guaranteed a steady supply of oil.

With the world upended because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the need for Europe to have steady oil and natural gas supplies, it is essential that the United States tap its vast oil shale reserves in the Green River Formation. This would help stabilize the energy security of the United States and its European allies. It would also make the United States 100% energy secure and free the United States from the cauldron of Middle East politics.

It should be noted here that this type of action by the United States would not be adding to the use of fossil fuels in the world. The exploitation of the Green River Formation would simply be displacing the use of fossil fuels from other sources of oil.

The cost of extracting this energy source cannot be accurately estimated. However, since the current technology available consumes less water because of the volatilization of water effect, the water cost is minimal, and so the breakeven cost of extracting a barrel of oil is significantly less than conventional fracking methods.

Reuters has estimated that the breakeven point for shale oil produced by fracking is $50. As noted above, fracking has a high-water cost. Since the current technology has a much lower water cost, it can be safely estimated to have a breakeven point of between $25 to $35 per barrel. If economies of scale are used, the cost could fall to as low as $15 to $25 a barrel.

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Looking beyond the Energy Price Shock to China’s Low Carbon Transition

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Authors: Martin Raiser, Sebastian Eckardt

The conflict in Ukraine has caused a massive shock to the global economy. Crude oil prices in early March spiked to as high as $140 per barrel, levels that were last seen in 2008. While prices have since come down from these peaks, they remain elevated, fueling already high inflation and hurting consumers and economic growth worldwide. Faced with this shock, countries everywhere are reappraising priorities, putting resilience at front and center. A renewed emphasis on food and energy security has compelled governments to reintroduce fossil fuel subsidies and ramp up domestic oil, gas and coal production, seemingly placing efforts to curb climate change on the back burner.

These reactions are understandable. A tactical retreat in the short run may be the price to pay to maintain public support for the long-term goal. But the economic case for accelerated climate action remains as strong as ever. For a country such as China with the domestic policy space to act, there are three key reasons to stay the course on the low carbon transition and aim for an early peak in emissions.

First, accelerating the energy transition would strengthen Beijing’s resilience to the volatility of global fossil fuel prices by reducing its dependence on oil & gas imports. Last year alone, China imported fossil fuels – oil, gas, and coal – worth $ 365.7 billion – the equivalent of more than two percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). This dependence on fuel imports is exposing the economy to global commodity price fluctuations. In contrast, renewable energy is essentially a domestic resource, especially for China, which is a major producer of key renewable energy technologies from wind turbines to battery storage.

Secondly, while higher energy prices may boost the short-term global supply of fossil fuels, in the longer-term outlook, higher and more volatile energy prices will push incentives for energy importers to diversify away from fossil fuels. This will likely catalyze individual and global efforts to decarbonize energy systems, boosting global demand for low carbon technologies and alternative sources of energy. China has the technological capabilities to benefit by anticipating and getting ahead of this all-important global shift.

Additionally, rising energy prices would challenge China’s investment and industry-led growth model, reinforcing the case for accelerated structural changes and rebalancing. High prices will increase pressures on China’s economy to diversify away from traditional investments and heavy industries, including iron, steel and cement production, which account for a disproportionate share of the country’s GDP but face diminishing returns and low productivity growth. The slowdown in the domestic real estate sector is already pointing in this direction. Higher energy prices could galvanize the shift toward an innovation- and services-based economic growth model.

Even as policymakers remain focused on mitigating the economic and social impact of recent sharp changes in relative prices, there are measures they can take today to prepare for the low carbon transition and reduce its costs. For example, rising energy prices will create incentives for more sustainable business models, but only if investors believe they are here to stay. This is why credible long-term guidance on the intended trajectory of carbon pricing and other policies to decarbonize China’s economy is so important. This would help investors anticipate future price increases and help bring clean energy investments forward without any immediate need to regulate or raise the price of carbon. The current period of high energy prices is the moment to provide such forward guidance, as market price incentives are already pointing in the right direction.

Fiscal policy can complement the role of price signals by supporting the necessary economic adjustment rather than trying to slow it down. The prospect of additional government stimulus to boost growth could provide the financing for a wave of green investments, including in the build-out and integration of more renewable energy capacity. In agriculture, rising fertilizer prices should provide incentives to reduce excessive usage. However, this shift would be thwarted if input-based subsidies remain in place. Instead, farmers could be compensated for higher input prices with subsidies that are tied to a shift toward resilient production methods. Field studies reveal that chemical fertilizers can be effectively substituted with animal manure, reducing agricultural greenhouse gas emissions at no cost to yields. To realize such a shift, greater investment in agricultural extension is required. 

Finally, rising energy and food prices would hurt the poor and more vulnerable households the most. But rather than providing subsidies across the board, a more robust and targeted social safety net could protect the vulnerable populations in urban and rural areas. Offering such targeted protection could ensure price signals are not diluted but the structural changes necessary for the transition to a greener and more innovative growth model don’t come at the expense of rising poverty and social inequality.

While adding headwinds to the near-term economic outlook, the current energy price shock reinforces the case for accelerating China’s energy transition. Policymakers should keep their eyes on the long-term target and use this opportunity to prepare the ground.

(first published on CGTN via World Bank)

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