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The Panama Canal is Key to American LNG

Back in March, S&P Global reported that a record 24 cargoes carrying nearly 1.6 million metric tons of U.S. LNG had reached Asia via the Cape of Good Hope in the first three months of 2024, with exporters choosing the much longer route and shunning the Panama and Suez canals due to various challenges. S&P reported that only 14 cargoes had reached Asia through the Panama Canal during the timeframe, a sharp drop from 40 cargoes recorded during the corresponding period in 2022 after low water levels occasioned by severe drought forced longer wait times for LNG carriers. The situation remained dire in April, with LNG transits through the canal's Neopanamax locks amounting to less than 5% of crossings while container ships accounted for more than 60% of the transits. 

"We use the canal when it is economical to do so, right now it is not. Right now the market in the Far East is not supporting it, and the waiting time, with us not being a priority customer, is just not worth us using it right now," Corey Grindal, Chief Operating Officer at Cheniere Energy (NYSE:LNG), previously told a media briefing. Cheniere Energy is the United States' largest LNG producer and exporter.

Thankfully, the situation is about to change: The Panama Canal is currently in talks with U.S. LNG producers on how to meet increased demand for crossings as water levels recover, Reuters has reported. The canal authorities are working with shippers to secure more passage for LNG customers, with plans to build water reservoirs as a solution to mitigate climate change related shortages. 

Last year, Europe accounted for 66 percent of total U.S. LNG exports, followed by Asia at 26 percent and Latin America and the Middle East with a combined eight percent. However, Cheniere is highly optimistic about Asian LNG demand, despite some countries with large gas-reliant economies currently hampered by poor credit ratings. Related: Pembina Not Giving Trans Mountain Hard Look Due to Shipping Fee Uncertainties

"They tend to rely more on state-to-state agreements. Obviously that is not something we can participate in. We see Thailand, Philippines as very attractive markets," Chief Commercial Officer Anatol Feygin told Reuters. Feygin expects China to import 100 million metric tons per year in the future, up from about 64 million metric tons in 2022.

Robust LNG Growth

Last year, the U.S. overtook Qatar to become the world's largest exporter of LNG for the first time ever in the industry's history. This development came hot on the heels of the country also emerging as the world's top crude oil producer.

The LNG outlook remains bright: the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) has predicted that LNG exports will increase 2% in 2024 to average 12.2 Bcf/d despite a slowdown in natural gas production due to low prices. EIA sees more robust growth with exports increasing 18%, good for an additional 2.1 Bcf/d. Meanwhile, the energy watchdog has forecast less impressive growth for U.S. natural gas exports by pipeline, expanding by 3% (0.3 Bcf/d) in 2024 and by 4% in 2025. EIA expects pipeline imports to decline by 0.4 Bcf/d in 2024 and then increase slightly (0.1 Bcf/d) in 2025.

Meanwhile, Energy Intelligence has reported that there's robust interest in long-term U.S. LNG projects. The energy agency has provided estimates that around 69 million tons per year of LNG would reach Final Investment Decision (FID) in the current year, potentially the most significant year for FIDs since 2019, when more than 70 million tons/yr was sanctioned. More than 40 million tons/yr in foundation supply agreements were reached over the past two years, supporting projects that include Commonwealth, CP2 in North America, Delfin and Saguaro. The new approvals are set to increase capacity under construction by 40% and extend the next supply wave to 2028-29.

Europe's likely to continue being the leading consumer of U.S. LNG for years to come, with the continent poised to cut off more Russian gas. Politico has reported that the European Commission has proposed sanctions on Russia's LNG sector as part of Brussels' 14th sanctions package against Russia.

The proposed sanctions do not directly bar Russian LNG imports to the EU; however, they will prevent EU countries from re-exporting Russian LNG after receiving it and also ban EU involvement in upcoming LNG projects in Russia. The measures are intended to disrupt Putin's ability to continue financing his war in Ukraine, with gas sales to Europe still an important source of revenue for the Kremlin. Although Russian LNG accounted for just 5% of the bloc's energy consumption in 2023, it still netted the Kremlin ~$8 billion in revenues. 

The proposal also suggests prohibiting the use of EU ports, finance and services to re-export Russian LNG, a move that will likely force Russia to overhaul its LNG export model considering it currently supplies LNG to Asia through Europe, where Spain, Belgium and France are major hubs.

"If they can't transship in Europe, they might have to take their ice-class tankers on longer journeys," Laura Page, a gas expert at the Kpler data analytics firm, has told Politico, adding that Russia "may not be able to get out as many loadings from Yamal because their vessels can't get back as quickly."

By Alex Kimani for

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Alex Kimani

Alex Kimani is a veteran finance writer, investor, engineer and researcher for  More