Challenge for Australia's gas exporters

It has been one of the long-awaited deals of the export gas sector: the sell-down by Origin Energy and Conoco Phillips of a further slice of equity in their megabillion-dollar Queensland project.

It has been one of the long-awaited deals of the export gas sector: the sell-down by Origin Energy and Conoco Phillips of a further slice of equity in their megabillion-dollar Queensland project.

Progress is expected in the next few month, and not only will the outcome be of fundamental interest to Origin shareholders, but it will give the clearest indication yet of overseas investor interest in Australia's export gas sector.

The shale gas revolution in the United States may have caused BHP Billiton pain by forcing it to write down the value of some of its gas assets there, but it also threatens to take some of the cream off the table for Australia's nascent gas exporters - in both volume and prices - as Asian buyers step up their campaign to cut the link between the oil and gas prices.

And a key price advantage of US exporters may give Asian buyers the opportunity to break this link.

Until now, concerns about energy security have meant that gas exports from the "lower 48 states" of the US, which don't include Alaska, have been banned. But that is changing, as the number of projects seeking export approval rises.

Research commissioned by the US Department of Energy found that allowing gas to be exported would bring net benefits to the economy and have little impact on domestic US gas prices.

"Benefits that come from export expansion more than outweigh the losses from reduced capital and wage income to US consumers, and hence LNG exports have net economic benefits in spite of higher domestic natural gas prices," the report found.

So, with surging US gas reserves, there is now a lengthening queue of gas projects seeking to export, with well over 20 projects lined up already, although not all of these projects will eventuate.

At present, the Asian gas market is dominated by a small number of suppliers - Malaysia, Australia and the Middle East. This will provide ready entry for North American suppliers as buyers seek to diversify import sources as they step up the campaign to break the nexus between gas and oil prices.

The most advanced of the US export projects is Cheniere Energy's Sabine Pass project in Louisiana, which has government approvals in place already, with exports likely from late 2015. Construction of two 4.5 million tonne-a-year export gas units is expected to start from midyear.

It has shaken up the sector by contracting to sell at a price linked to the domestic US gas price, and not oil.

Like a number of the US projects, it will convert import facilities to export gas, which gives it enormous financial advantage over facilities being built from the ground up.

For example, at one import facility in Marylands, on the US east coast, it is estimated it will cost $US3.5 billion (3.3 billion) to switch to exports, well below the cost of a greenfields facility. Last week it won court approval to export gas.

Optimists argue that surging global gas demand will readily absorb exports from North America, with shortfalls still likely from the early part of next decade. This could provide a window for further US exports or additional tranches of exports from Australian projects.

That may well be the case, although the resources sector is littered with projects planned on the back of reckless optimism.

Still, Australia may enjoy a key transport advantage which could provide extra comfort.

Shippers from Alaska to north Asia have roughly a 20 per cent shipping advantage over Australian shippers, with about a five-day sailing time. But this advantage disappears for shippers from the US west coast.

If, as many expect, some south-east Asian countries that presently export LNG switch to imports, that advantage will shift in favour of Australian suppliers.

For BHP shareholders, the switch in gas fortunes in the US marks a lucky escape, since only a few years back it was forced to abandon plans to build a gas import terminal on the US west coast. If it had proceeded, it would be staring down the barrel of a multibillion-dollar loss.

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