• Gas Glut? Not for Long.

    Natural gas prices are falling all over the world. There is abundant supply, and demand has been lukewarm this northern hemisphere winter, which was relatively mild. Indeed, the global gas market is in oversupply.

    This prompted Morgan Stanley to recently forecast a gas glut that we have not seen in decades. It was going to materialize as a result of strong growth in LNG production capacity, the bank’s commodity analysts said. They cited numbers showing that there was 400 million tons in such capacity to date, but another 150 million tons were under construction—“a record wave of expansion”.
    It appears the forecast was based on an assumption of not very strong demand growth—but it may be the wrong assumption. Because natural gas demand is set to grow, and grow quite robustly. At the same time, some producers, notably in the United States are already starting to withhold production, because of the low price of the commodity.

    Asia imported record volumes of liquefied natural gas last month, data from Kpler showed recently. The biggest buyers were China, India, and Thailand, with India’s LNG purchases up by 30% from a year earlier and China’s 22% higher than in March 2023.

    That record would not have been possible had prices not fallen—and prices had fallen because Europe was buying less LNG. The reason Europe was buying less LNG were its full gas storage sites. Winter was once again mild in Europe and it never got to exhaust the gas it had purchased in anticipation of the heating season. In fact, Europe saw record gas in storage as of the end of this heating season, and that contributed to the weakness of natural gas prices—along with the depressed industrial activity on the continent.

    The fact that demand for LNG immediately rebounded as prices fell suggests that the longer they stay low, the stronger demand will get, especially among countries that have been trying to reduce their consumption of coal in favor of gas. There are a lot of these, under pressure from transition-focused governments that, though no fans of any hydrocarbons, acknowledge that natural gas has a lower emissions footprint than coal.

    Two years ago, Europe priced these countries out of the market. Now, with prices so low, they may well consider returning to it, driving higher demand. Supply, on the other hand, may not grow as much as Morgan Stanley expects.

    The bank’s analysts point to U.S. gas exporters that are planning a lot of new LNG capacity. But whether all of this capacity would end up getting built is another question. Tellurian’s Driftwood LNG project is one example. The facility has been in the works for years, but it has kept failing to secure the necessary long-term buyer commitments to proceed. The future of Venture Global’s second LNG plant is also uncertain—as is the future of all new LNG plants as the federal government paused new capacity approvals.
    Demand, meanwhile, may be set for even stronger growth, thanks to artificial intelligence. Data centers, which already consume substantial amounts of electricity, are about to become an even bigger drain on the grid as AI gets incorporated in more services. This will automatically mean stronger demand for natural gas for generation—because wind and solar will not be able to handle the surge.

    “Gas is the only cost-efficient energy generation capable of providing the type of 24/7 reliable power required by the big technology companies to power the AI boom,” the founder of Energy Capital Partners, an investor in both alternative and hydrocarbon sources of energy, told the Financial Times recently. Doug Kimmelman added that gas will be critical for the power supply of data centers in the AI era.

    Demand for electricity from data centers, according to the International Energy Agency, is set to swell twofold from 2022 by 2026, potentially topping 1,000 TWh. This is a lot of electricity consumption and for all the pledges that Big Tech has made for using low-carbon energy to power its data centers, most of its actual energy comes from hydrocarbons, simply because there is no low-carbon energy that is available around the clock without interruption—and carbon credits can and are bought separately from the electricity they are tied to.

    All this means that the outlook for natural gas demand in the coming years is quite bullish. Low prices invariably stimulate stronger demand and in this case the ambition for lower emissions helps gas demand specifically grow even more strongly.

    Then there is the question of supply. It may look abundant now, but in a few months, U.S. drillers’ move to curb supply by drilling but not completing new wells will begin to be felt. Besides, no one can say how the next winter in the northern hemisphere will turn out. It may be mild, but it may be harsh. It is a little bit ironic that if the milder winters of the last two years were driven by climate change, Europe has climate change to thank for its lower use of hydrocarbons.

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