In retrospect, it will be seen as a good decision. Petronas is pulling out of the US$29 billion Pacific Northwest LNG project in British Columbia, Canada. The Malaysian state oil company cited ‘prolonged depressed prices and shifts in the energy industry’ as the reasons for exiting the long-gestating project. The former refers to the current slump in LNG prices, which shows no sign of improving, and the latter refers to America’s LNG renaissance, founded not on mammoth expensive projects but nimble, dynamic plays. The decision to admit defeat has not been an easy one, but it is the right one.
The initially announced cancellation of Pacific Northwest LNG in the press, is the fifth major LNG export casualty in the last 18 months, joining Fisherman’s Landing and Browse in Australia, Oregon LNG in the USA, and Prince Rupert, also in British Columbia, to be shelved. The projects that would have joined Wheatstone, Gorgon, Ichthys and Prelude are now victims of the painful rebalancing the LNG industry has to undergo, as suppliers yield power to buyers, who for the first time in LNG history have a luxury of choice and are exerting their rights.
It might have been different, but Pacific Northwest also came under much pressure of local politics. Located in an environmentally sensitive area of British Columbia, environmentalists have railed against the project from the start, even as the Canadian federal government and the BC state government gave their approvals after extensive environment impact studies. Then in May, the ruling NDP lost their majority in BC state elections, forcing them to form a support coalition with the Green Party, vehemently opposed to the project. When that happened, the writing was always on the wall for PNW.
It is for the best. The nature of the geography at the PNW site required high costs to build the necessary infrastructure and pipelines, far higher than those smaller, more deft producers along the more established US Gulf. High costs require high prices to recoup. In the past, this would be solved by locking buyers into long-term contracts at fixed prices. That is no longer a popular option; not with US producers like Cheniere offering short, flexible contracts that countries like Japan, South Korea and China find extremely enticing. Then, battling hostile neighbours, Qatar lifted its moratorium on the vast North Field – planning to double production at the source of some of the cheapest gas in the world. You also have to consider all the African LNG projects being developed, many with stakes held by major Asian buyers, cutting off routes for Canadian supplies.
This is not the end of LNG in Canada. But it is a refocusing. The other partners in Pacific Northwest are looking at re-purposing the project, or parts of it, into a more cost-effective solution. Indian Oil has already said it will talk with the other partners – Sinopec, Japan’s Japex Montney and Petroleum Brunei – to scout for an alternative and cheaper site. Even Petronas reiterates that this is not the end of its presence in Canada, aiming to continue to develop natural gas assets and possibly even participate in Shell’s Kitimat LNG project, also in British Columbia. All players will be careful and approach new opportunities with caution. Expect more of this over the next five years, which will be a period of consolidation and recalibration of major LNG projects into a few golden eggs rather than a whole basket. It is better that a few projects stay on hold for now, then obstinately push ahead and cause a collapse of the industry.