Malaysia's state-owned oil and gas company just made a multibillion-dollar bet that Canada will choose to export its shale gas riches. Even though the odds of securing permission to export liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the Canadian west coast are still pretty poor, the costs of such an endeavor immense, and the timeline in question very long, Petronas is putting $5.5 billion on the table—far more than it has ever spent on an acquisition before—to secure a large foothold in the British Columbia shale gas scene.
It's yet another sign that things are getting serious in the global race for resources.
The race for resources drives much of our thinking within the Casey Research energy group. It's more than a common theme—we believe that it is one of the strongest forces at work in our world today, and that it plays a role in determining the tone of many international relationships and domestic policies. Countries that have resources, from Russia to Australia, are altering fiscal structures and ownership rules so as to glean as much benefit as possible from their riches, while still reserving sufficient supplies to fuel their futures. Countries that lack natural-resource wealth, such as Japan and South Korea, are racing to lock up projects and partnerships abroad that can supply their future resource needs.
And a race it is, because they are not alone. There are few countries in this world with natural supplies of all the energy commodities they need—Australia, Russia, and Canada are among the few that do—and everyone else has to constantly wheel and deal to secure imports. Now the easy deposits of many energy resources are disappearing, but global demand continues to rise. The result: stiffer competition.
Petronas' deal is a perfect example. Petronas is buying Calgary-based Progress Energy Resources (T.PRQ) for C$4.8 billion in cash. Including convertible debt the deal is valued at about C$5.5 billion. In announcing the deal, Petronas also said it has chosen Prince Rupert, BC, as the home of its planned LNG export terminal.
So the company is spending billions of dollars to acquire 1.9 trillion cubic feet of proven and probable gas reserves… but there is no guarantee that they will be able to export any of that gas in the foreseeable future.
Pipelines have become a highly contentious issue in North America—just as US citizens are embroiled in a debate over the Keystone XL pipeline which would transport oil sands crude south, Canadians are arguing the merits and liabilities of the Northern Gateway pipeline, which would move oil sands crude to the west coast for transport to Asia. One of the big arguments against Northern Gateway is the danger of sending tanker traffic through the coastal waters of northern BC, where an oil spill would be near impossible to clean and would irreparably damage a pristine ecosystem.
The same arguments will surface with natural gas. The LNG terminal that Petronas envisions in Prince Rupert would send loaded tankers through those same sensitive waters, an idea that is far from accepted in the region at this point. The pipelines ferrying natural gas to that terminal would cross mountainous terrain burdened with heavy winter snowpack and dramatic summer melts that regularly cause hillsides to slide and rivers to swell their banks and take out bridges—all points that opponents will use to argue that the potential risks outweigh the benefits.
In short: Petronas and its peers face a steep, uphill battle in their quest to permit pipelines and LNG terminals on the west coast. But as we wrote last week, the potential for big profits will also play a role.
Remember, natural gas in its gaseous state is a landlocked commodity. Its low energy-to-volume ratio renders it uneconomic to ship, which means pipelines are the only option. To move natural gas over oceans it has to be condensed into LNG, increasing the energy-to-volume ratio dramatically and making it economic to load onto tankers and send around the world.
Many major global economies rely on LNG to meet their natural gas needs; and demand is on the rise. In 2011, global LNG trade grew by 9.4% compared to 2010, with Asia generating most of the demand increase. Japan is the world's top LNG importer, having bought 79.1 million tonnes in 2011; South Korea is in second place with imports near 36 million tonnes. India, China, and Taiwan are all also major LNG buyers, helping to lift Asia into top spot as a regional LNG import market: Asian LNG buyers accounted for 63.6% of the global market in 2011.
That level of demand from a part of the world fairly short on supply means high prices. LNG in Asia is currently worth between $17 and $18 per million British Thermal Units (MMBtu)—six to seven times the price of natural gas in North America.
That price difference is precisely why Petronas is maneuvering to buy reserves in North America. The gamble is simply worth its while—if Petronas is able to build pipelines and an LNG terminal on the west coast, the company will be able to take a commodity worth a few dollars here and sell it for many times more in Asia.
The lure of that payout has drawn many players to this expensive, drawn out, and highly uncertain game. With this deal, Petronas joins a growing list of international energy companies including PetroChina, Mitsubishi, and CNOOC that are spending billions on remote natural gas plays in Alberta and BC, all of which share the same dream of selling the gas in Asian markets.
While these Asian energy giants take on the risk, Canadian gas explorers pretty much get to just enjoy the benefits. Depressed North American gas prices have brought most gas explorers to a standstill—investors and banks alike are not interested in funding projects where the cost of production is almost the same as the value of the product. But being bought out or finding a partner with deep pockets is a perfect solution. As Progress' CEO said, "Our asset base requires extensive capital to develop its large potential and ultimately access international LNG markets. Petronas offers the size and scale that will enable our company to continue to grow and not be limited by the same cash flow challenges faced by many producers in the North American natural gas market today."
Since Canada's gas explorers are stuck in neutral, you might think that Asian energy firms would be making minimal offers, trying to acquire these resources on the cheap. Instead, Petronas offered C$22.45 a share for Progress, 77% more than Progress' closing price the previous day. Are they trying to earn goodwill with Canadians? Perhaps, but there's a more likely explanation for their generosity: pressure from behind. If they made a stink bid and Progress voiced displeasure, the dispute could draw attention from Petronas' peers, which are also on the lookout for good natural gas deals. One of these peers might then swoop in and make a better offer, leaving Petronas empty-handed.
This is the impact of the race for resources. These Asian energy giants are racing with each other to secure resources for the future. The constant pressure to stay ahead in the race means companies will offer whatever it takes to secure a deal quickly, before anyone else trips up their efforts.
Shale gas riches have positioned North Americans as beneficiaries in the global race to secure natural gas supplies. However, complacency is a dangerous thing. Just because North America has gas doesn't mean it has all of the energy resources it needs for the future. President Obama's recent executive order on Russian uranium was a reminder that the US relies on imports to feed its nuclear reactors, and with the Megatons deal coming to an end, the United States is being thrust into the global race for uranium just as that race is heating up.
Scarcity is a powerful force and it leaves those in control of limited resources wielding great power. We think a scarcity of uranium will increase Russia's power; control over some of the last big, easy oil deposits has earned Saudi Arabia great global influence. Petronas' deal with Progress is a sign that shale gas could generate similar prowess for North America, and is a strong reminder that the global race for resources will provide some with money and power while leaving others in the dust.
North American energy resources don't guarantee the US a comfortable position in the gas and oil sectors. Pipeline politics and eager Asian bidders may leave the United States literally out in the cold.