Major Asian buyers of liquefied natural gas (LNG) could seek U.S. cargoes in the coming weeks if worker-related disputes at key LNG facilities in Australia escalate, analysts said, as electricity demand continues surge due to warm weather.
Uncertainty over labour disputes at western Australian facilities run by Woodside Energy Group and U.S. major Chevron CVX-N have spurred Asian LNG prices to their highest in five months, and analysts say they could rise further.
As many as 700 workers at the Australian facilities could potentially down tools over pay and job security, the first of them as early as Sept. 2, and stall output at four facilities that produce more than a tenth of the world’s LNG.
Prolonged strikes at all three plants could push Asian buyers, Chevron and Woodside to look for alternatives to meet their commitments, resulting in more competition for spot LNG cargoes, said Massimo Di Odoardo, vice president, gas and LNG research at consultancy Wood Mackenzie.
“Some LNG scheduled to go to Europe could likely be diverted to Asia, mainly from the U.S. and Qatar,” he said.
U.S. LNG exports to Asia snapped an eight-year growth streak and plunged 44 per cent in 2022, data from analytics firm Kpler showed, as European buyers paid a premium for Atlantic LNG to make up for lost imports from Russia, its main gas supplier.
“If the Australian industrial actions materialise in the next few weeks, we think the major Asian markets may increase exports from other places, and eventually increase calls on U.S. cargoes,” said Min Na, head of Asia LNG at Energy Aspects.
While a simultaneous, prolonged strike seems unlikely for now, a recent surge in Japanese electricity demand has added to concerns over inventories, analysts at Rystad and ANZ said.
“With Japan’s summer cooling demand expected to continue into September, LNG consumption is likely to remain strong,” ANZ said in a note last week, adding that postponement of a restart of two nuclear reactors and maintenance work at another was also adding to supply pressure.
Top importer Japan is most vulnerable to any near-term strike-related disruptions, analysts say, with ANZ estimating supplies from the strife-hit facilities to account for more than a quarter of its annual LNG imports. Unions at Woodside’s North West Shelf offshore platform on Sunday announced plans to strike as soon as Sept. 2, while workers at Chevron last week began voting on whether to grant unions permission to call for strike action.
Another potential disruption is scheduled maintenance of one of five trains in the North West Shelf from Aug. 25 until Sept. 23, said Laura Page, Kpler’s principal LNG analyst.
“Should this go ahead as planned, we expect exports to dip from the plant later this week,” she said.
“We see the potential for 1 million tonnes of lost Australian LNG production versus capacity in week commencing Sept. 2, on the back of planned maintenances, and if all affected plants go offline due to strike action,” Page said.
Woodside Energy Chief Executive Meg O’Neill said on Tuesday that the market is going to be “pretty tightly balanced for the next few years,” as Europe works through the impact of reduced Russian supply.
“Markets are still quite fragile and we saw that a few weeks ago when just the rumour of industrial action in Australia cause gas prices in Europe to spike by 40 per cent,” she said on a call with investors.