U.S. LNG Storage to Hit Record as Pandemic Cuts Demand, Exports

(Reuters) — U.S. natural gas stockpiles will hit an all-time high in 2020 as drillers keep producing record amounts of fuel even though demand is expected to slump as governments take steps to slow the spread of coronavirus. 

Before the outbreak, analysts projected the United States would export much of its surplus gas to other countries. But suppliers of liquefied natural gas (LNG) are flooding the market with excess cargoes due to declining demand, and analysts expect buyers to cancel more U.S. cargoes in the coming months as gas prices plunge.

Analysts polled by Reuters project U.S. gas storage will reach a record 4.078 trillion cubic feet (tcf) at the end of the summer (April-October) injection season as the pandemic cuts demand before producers can reduce output. That is still well short of U.S. capacity of 4.268 tcf in the Lower 48 states, according to the most recent federal data in 2018.

However, the slump in demand headed into the seasonally less active summer means prices are set to drop further. The combination of reduced demand out of Europe and Asia, and fewer new U.S. liquefaction units entering service means the rapid pace of U.S. LNG export growth over the past few years will slow.

Even before the coronavirus spread, global gas prices were already trading at their lowest in years as the U.S.-China trade war pressured economic growth while mild weather reduced heating demand in North America, Europe and Asia and filled European gas stockpiles to historic highs.

In recent weeks, however, gas prices in Europe and Asia have collapsed to record lows, while the U.S. Henry Hub benchmark tumbled to its lowest since 1995.

Total LNG deliveries to Europe are expected to reach nearly 11 million metric tons in March, a 14% rise from the previous record set in December, according to IHS Markit. Some of that supply is coming from Asia, where buyers are reselling cargoes bought from the United States and elsewhere.

“This unprecedented surge of LNG supply to Europe is certain to cause knock-on effects. Storage inventories will build up earlier than normal and that will put additional downward pressure on prices," Shankari Srinivasan, IHS Markit vice president of gas and power, said.

The United States has exported record amounts of LNG every year since 2016, reaching an average 5.0 billion cubic feet per day (bcfd) in 2019. One billion cubic feet is enough gas for about five million U.S. homes for a day.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), however, projected LNG exports will rise 29% this year, a steep drop from an increase of 68% in 2019.

Goldman Sachs said U.S. LNG export cancellations were more likely to come from trading houses and portfolio players, rather than utilities, and would most likely occur at tolling facilities, plants owned by one company where others pay to produce LNG, like Freeport LNG's plant in Texas. Officials at Freeport said they do not comment on its customer agreements.

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