Business·Analysis

B.C. LNG project still facing tough headwinds

The B.C. provincial government has done its part to encourage Malaysia's Petronas to invest in a $36 billion liquefied natural gas project on the province's northwest coast. However, the commercial environment is not so clear.

Canada has already missed the first wave of LNG developments, can it catch the second?

The B.C. provincial government has done its part to encourage Malaysia's Petronas to invest in a $36-billion liquefied natural gas project on the province's northwest coast.

It has promised to lock in royalties and taxes for more than 20 years so the project faces a more certain regulatory environment. That is key, according to Alex Munton, North American LNG analyst with Wood Mackenzie.

"The cost of developing LNG in Western Canada compares expensively to other options around the world. The fiscal part of that is important," says Munton. "The way in which projects like Pacific Northwest compare with other projects internationally is going to be key to whether they go forward." 

However, the commercial environment is not so clear. Canada has already missed the first wave of LNG development, the question is whether it can catch the second wave.

The Pacific Northwest projects aims to pipe natural gas from northeastern B.C. to the coast,  cool it and then ship it in tankers to the Asian market.

But Canada is years behind in this race.

There are three LNG export terminals already operating in Australia, with seven more under construction. As well, ExxonMobil recently opened its LNG plant in Papua New Guinea. Those plants are targeting the same Asian clients that B.C. is focused on. In the United States, there are four projects under construction on the Gulf Coast and another under construction on the Atlantic Coast

LNG prices in Asia and Europe are now hovering around $7 US, a huge premium to North American prices, which trade under $3 US. But as more supply flows into the market, prices are expected to drop.

Huge growth in LNG supply

"We're at the start of a large growth period in terms of LNG supply coming into the market," says Munton.

"What this means is that the market that will be oversupplied in the medium term. It is going to be difficult for all that LNG to be absorbed straightaway."

That will put pressure on prices and raise questions about whether these very expensive B.C. projects will be economic.

"It's very difficult for these projects to confidently go forward with their investment, within the current market context."

Timing good for Pacific Northwest project

The long term view is more positive says Munton. The longer term view is that LNG demand will continue to grow and there will be ample room for projects such as Pacfiic Northwest to supply into that market.

Pacific Northwest had expected to start exporting LNG in late 2018, but the date is expected to be pushed out as it makes its final investment decision, negotiates with First Nations, works on the plan for its terminal on Lelu Island, and awaits the completion of an environmental review by the federal government.

Munton feels that 2021 is probably the earliest that Pacific Northwest could come on stream, a point in time when demand is expected to be strong enough to soak up all the extra supply coming out of the U.S. and Australia.

"The timing wouldn't be too bad at all for Pacific Northwest to be coming on stream around 2021, 2022."

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