Global gas market in crisis as China rebuffs imports
Second-largest importer of liquefied natural gas triggers ‘force majeure’ on some contracts
Two of China’s largest energy groups have already declared 'force majeure' on at least 14 LNG import cargoes
The coronavirus outbreak has thrown the global gas market into turmoil with Chinese importers threatening to cancel up to 70 per cent of seaborne imports in February as demand collapses and companies struggle to staff ports. The move by China, the world’s second-largest importer of liquefied natural gas, has sent prices to their lowest level on record and sparked a row with suppliers, which claim the Chinese companies are breaching their contracts to secure lower prices on the spot market. The stand-off is the latest sign of the economic damage being wreaked by the coronavirus outbreak, which is expected to curtail global growth as large parts of the world’s second-largest economy essentially are in lockdown. Lower gas prices are a potential boon for manufacturers and consumers but a problem for energy companies, which have warned of a big hit to profits in the first half of this year. Oil demand in China is also estimated to have fallen by as much as a quarter in February, as big cities have been quarantined, flights cancelled and public holidays extended to try to contain the spread of the virus, which has killed more than 600 people and infected more than 31,000.
Two of China’s largest energy groups have already declared “force majeure” on at least 14 LNG import cargoes, invoking a clause usually reserved for natural disasters or war that frees both sides from the contract. Chinese LNG buyers are likely to issue more such notices in the coming days, according to people with knowledge of the transactions. Some LNG tankers are said to have been diverted from southern Chinese ports to the north. But analysts say other large markets in Asia and Europe are saturated amid a global supply surfeit, meaning ships are likely to anchor off Chinese shores as floating storage. Wholesale gas prices in the UK are close to the lowest level since the financial crisis. “The prospect of a flotilla of diverted LNG carriers sailing around the world looking for a home only adds to the bearish sentiment,” said Frank Harris, global head of LNG at consultancy Wood Mackenzie. A glut of natural gas has already depressed Asian LNG prices to a historic low of $2.95 per million British thermal units. LNG sellers complain that China’s use of the force majeure clause is at least partly motivated by importers’ desire to buy at cheaper spot prices instead of cargoes imported under their long-term contracts. The LNG market has grown rapidly in recent years, boosted by greater supplies from the US and Australia. The rise in seaborne gas trade has connected regional markets and brought prices closer together, meaning a drop in Asia can now mean cheaper prices in Europe, and vice versa. Of the cargoes already cancelled under force majeure, 10 were issued by China National Offshore Oil Corporation (Cnooc) to Royal Dutch Shell, with PetroChina refusing to take two cargoes from Qatar and two from Malaysia — including one due for delivery in March — according to people with knowledge of the contracts.
As many as 50 cargoes, or 70 per cent of February’s total imports, are now thought to be at risk of cancellation over the coming days, as buyers including Sinopec have sent out notices saying they will struggle to take them. China imported an average of almost 7bn cubic metres a month of the supercooled fuel last year, according to consultancy Energy Aspects. Although China has expanded its storage in recent years, capacity remained limited, analysts at ANZ said. LNG suppliers, traders and lawyers are questioning the legitimacy of declaring force majeure due to a drop in demand following the spread of the coronavirus. “There are substantial questions about whether it’s appropriate,” said Jason Feer, global head of business intelligence at Poten & Partners, a broker. “They’re getting a lot of pushback from suppliers saying low prices and full tanks is not a force majeure event.” France’s Total said it had rejected a majeure notice from one Chinese company. “Our legal analysis is that there is no force majeure,” said Philippe Sauquet, Total’s president of gas, renewables and power. “We have to be careful because if there is a real quarantine in a loading or unloading port, there will be a real case for force majeure in China.” Additional reporting by Michael Pooler and Stefania Palma