For the United States, the road to helping Ukraine solve its energy crisis runs through Asia.
Six U.S. liquefied natural gas projects are in their early stages, and American lawmakers are urging the Obama administration to fast-track more LNG proposals.
Many Republican and Democratic legislators believe U.S. LNG projects could come to Ukraine's rescue by shipping natural gas in liquid form. That would help Ukraine, which is facing soaring gas prices from Russia amid the countries' conflict.
But there is no quick fix for Ukraine and eastern Europe to wean themselves off natural gas that flows through the pipeline system run by Russian state-owned energy giant Gazprom, industry experts say. They caution that there is misguided political pressure in the United States to send LNG directly to Europe.
The reality is that U.S. LNG is heading for Asia, where prices are most attractive. Still, U.S. LNG exports to Asia will create ripple effects that clear the way to loosen Russia's energy grip on Ukraine and eastern Europe. Sending LNG to Asia frees up room for producers in the Middle East and Africa to allocate supplies for Ukraine and eastern Europe, and provide an alternative to Russian gas.
The vast majority of U.S. LNG exports will target Asia because that is what makes economic sense, said Mikkal Herberg, research director of the energy security program at the Seattle-based National Bureau of Asian Research.
"Suppliers do like Asia because the prices there for LNG are much higher than in Europe," he said in an interview. Mr. Herberg was among 100 experts from around the world who gathered last week in Seattle for an energy conference organized by the bureau and aided by the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.
The pending entry of the United States into the LNG shipping market will provide much-needed flexibility in global energy trading. But changes won't happen overnight because tens of billions of dollars need to be spent to develop U.S. projects.
Cheniere Energy Inc.'s Sabine Pass venture in Louisiana is the only LNG project under construction in North America. Cheniere is slated to start shipping LNG late next year.
Five other American projects have received key export licences from the U.S. Department of Energy, but those ventures are awaiting approval from the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
Australia already has three LNG projects operating and seven under construction. By 2018, Australia is forecast to supplant Qatar as the world's largest LNG exporter, while the United States is expected to surpass Malaysia to become the third-largest within four or five years.
As Australia and the United States make their moves into Asia, LNG exporters such as Qatar and Nigeria will strategically direct larger supplies to Ukraine and Europe.
"You can bring LNG into Europe, but you can't transport gas around Europe effectively," Mr. Herberg said. "You don't have good pipeline connections from the west side of Europe to the east side of Europe."
If LNG supplies are increased into Europe, that will help efforts to improve the continent's pipeline system in the long term, he said. "Any LNG that goes into Europe incrementally will ultimately help all of Europe be a little bit more independent on natural gas," Mr. Herberg said.
In 2006, the United States was preparing for a wave of LNG imports as companies built facilities to accept foreign supplies.
Since then, the shale gas revolution in the United States has resulted in an abundance of natural gas, but it will take several years for the nascent U.S. LNG sector to gear up for exports, said Anthony Jude, a senior energy adviser at the Asian Development Bank.
The rise of the U.S. industry will redraw the global LNG map, and projects in Canada will need to hustle to catch up with rival proposals south of the border.
There is still an opportunity for B.C. LNG projects to make up for lost time, said Hironori Nakanishi, a director at Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.
Experts say it is realistic to expect three B.C. LNG projects out of 14 proposals to come to fruition, and six out of nearly 30 in the United States. Japanese firms are partners in three B.C. proposals and also investors in some major U.S. LNG projects.
The United States has numerous "brownfield" projects that call for reconfiguring existing import facilities and converting them to handle LNG exports. By contrast, LNG projects in British Columbia are "greenfield" proposals that effectively mean building on undeveloped sites where there are no existing energy plants.
Only Sabine Pass is under construction among the six U.S. LNG projects listed here that have had their export applications approved by the U.S. Department of Energy. At least 22 other U.S. LNG export proposals are in the works.
Sabine Pass: Sabine Pass, La.
Freeport LNG: Freeport, Tex.*
Lake Charles: Lake Charles, La.
Cove Point LNG: Lusby, Md.
Cameron LNG: Hackberry, La.
Jordan Cove: Coos Bay, Ore.
* Two Freeport filings approved by U.S. Department of Energy