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Gas shortage? Tapping the bubbling wells of spin and self-interest

Crikey, 26 February 2014

New South Wales is about to run out of gas, so says the scare
campaign. It's bully-boy tactics by Australia's powerful oil and gas industry,
designed to pressure the state government into quickly approving contentious
coal seam gas projects proposed by Santos at Narrabri and AGL at Gloucester. Federal Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane is on board, warning
last year
NSW would "run short of gas by 2016" and moving to knock heads
together on the issue straight
after the election
. For months we have been hearing the same lines trotted
out: how NSW is "running
on empty
", suddenly needs "energy
security
", and how developing its own "indigenous" gas supplies will
ease prices
.

Former John Howard industrial relations minister Peter Reith — whose
recommendation to lift fracking bans was ignored by the Victorian government
last year — used
his column in Fairfax papers
yesterday to accuse the O'Farrell government of
abandoning the CSG debate, warning "there is a real prospect Sydney could suffer
gas shortages". Reith failed to disclose his consultancy
with construction giant Bechtel
, a major contractor to the CSG industry.

Former federal energy minister Martin Ferguson was appointed chair of
new advisory group APPEA ("the voice of Australia's oil and gas industry") in
October, barely six months after he stepped down from his cabinet post and only
weeks after retiring from Parliament — flouting the 18-month cooling-off period
required of ex-ministers under the lobbying
code of conduct
. Ferguson had
a dig
at his erstwhile NSW Labor colleagues for "parroting the lines of the
Greens and showing itself to be completely irrelevant to the debate", urging
Premier Barry O'Farrell to break "the impasse preventing the development of the
state’s abundant gas resources to put downward pressure on rising prices".

The ABC's
fact checkers concluded
Macfarlane's alarming claims about a NSW gas
shortage were "unverifiable". They were way too generous. The claims are
rubbish, designed to confuse the public. Here's what they're not telling
you:

  1. No one is going to run out of gas;
  2. Developing CSG in NSW won't lower rising gas prices;
  3. It's too late anyway for NSW CSG to ease the current uncertainty affecting
    gas markets; and
  4. There are plenty of alternative sources of supply for NSW.

Australia has an incredible amount of gas; we're about to overtake Qatar to
become the world's largest exporter of liquefied natural gas. Between Western
Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland, seven LNG projects worth more
than $200 billion are on the go.

The chart above shows three seriously big gas resources that supply
the southern and eastern states: the massive coal seam gas in Queensland's Bowen
and Surat basins (41620PJ), plus conventional gas in the Gippsland Basin
(3890PJ) and the Cooper Basin (1835PJ). Not shown but certainly exercising the
mind of investors is a vast potential resource of tight and shale gas in the
Cooper Basin — which may turn out to be bigger than CSG in Queensland, and
which oil majors like Chevron and BG Group are scrambling to invest in. By
comparison, the coal seam gas discovered in NSW is significant, but no
game-changer: Santos has 1426PJ in the Gunnedah Basin, which accounts for half
the state's known reserves.

Overall, there is no doubt Australia has enough gas in the ground to
supply both the domestic and export markets. As a country we can afford to think
strategically, pick and choose which gas fields we develop, and in what
order.

As the Australian Energy Market Operator found last year, if there's
one place in Australia susceptible to shortage it's Gladstone in Queensland.
That's where three massive LNG export projects operated by BG, Santos and Origin
Energy are about to treble gas demand in eastern Australia — ultimately
representing some 80% of total gas demand in the eastern market — once they
begin to come online later this year. By exposing the domestic market to higher
international LNG prices of around $14-15 a gigajoule (which are geared to the
oil price), the LNG projects are going to double domestic wholesale gas prices,
from around $3-4/GJ to $8-10/GJ and higher, inevitably pushing up retail prices
(as NSW saw last week).

The three big projects in Gladstone were approved quickly in 2010 and
2011 — without any strategic consideration of the impact on the domestic gas
market — in a rush to sign lucrative contracts with buyers in Asia. It's a bold
experiment; the world's first attempt to convert coal seam gas into LNG for
export. Nobody knows yet if the thousands of CSG wells required to feed the six
big LNG liquefaction units (or "trains") under construction — each one
consuming roughly as much gas each year as say Queensland or Victoria, so adding
six new states' worth of demand to the network — can be drilled fast enough,
and will flow enough gas for long enough, to fulfil those contractual
commitments.

The federal Bureau
of Resources and Energy Economics described
this as the key "information
asymmetry" in the eastern Australia gas market — "whether or not CSG production
associated with LNG exports will fall short" — and says we won't really know
the answer until the plants get up and running, from late-2014 to 2016.

With almost $70 billion on the line to develop these projects, it's
nerve-wracking to say the least for CSG-LNG operators — particularly Santos,
which last Friday rattled investors by again downgrading its gas resource
estimates. Santos insists it has enough gas to supply its Gladstone LNG project,
but AEMO predicts shortages of 83 terajoules a day from 2018 — and they've been
the biggest buyer of gas in the wholesale market in the past few years. AGL
describes Santos' project as "materially short" of gas over the longer term.

Not that Santos is alone trying to shore up supply. Projects that
were originally planned to rely on CSG from Queensland's Bowen and Surat basins
are now sucking up more and more conventional gas resources. The operators are
moving to shore up gas supply from each other, from interstate, from everywhere.
BG and Santos have both bought gas from Origin, which has the best CSG acreage
in Queensland. Santos and Origin are buying in gas from the Cooper Basin. Origin
has bought
extra gas
from as far away as Bass Strait.

Gas-fired power stations will be closed to make sure those LNG trains
at Gladstone are kept full. Queensland's Swanbank gas-fired power station has
just announced
it will shut for the next three years — with gas prices
rising it was more lucrative to sell the gas to LNG operators than to burn it
for electricity. Swanbank's owner, Stanwell, will fire up the mothballed
coal-fired Tarong power station instead. Others will follow suit. It's bad news
for Australia's greenhouse gas emissions.

Pipeline operators have already felt the pull from the new centre of
gravity in Gladstone. The biggest operator, APA Trust, is upgrading its
Victorian interconnect, so it can bring more gas north. Jemena is likely to do
the same, last year announcing feasibility work on upgrading the Eastern Gas
Pipeline that runs up the east coast from Esso's Longford plant and already
supplies more than half of the gas needs of NSW. These upgrades are
comparatively cheap; generally a bit more compression is all that's needed — no
new pipe, no new corridor.

APA operates the Moomba-Sydney pipeline and also the connecting South
West Queensland pipeline to Wallumbilla that has brought Queensland's coal seam
gas into NSW. APA is set to reverse the flow of that pipe, from east-west to
west-east, so Cooper Basin gas can flow to Gladstone. Last week APA
announced
it would conduct feasibility on a pipeline to bring gas from the
Northern Territory and even the Timor Sea, all the way east.

Critically for NSW, the flow of APA's Moomba-Sydney pipeline could
ultimately be reversed. Does that mean Sydney runs out of gas? No. Gas will flow
up augmented pipelines from Bass Strait, which is not running out any time soon.
Esso and BHP are spending $4.5 billion on developing the Kipper Tuna Turrum
project to maintain production there and the partners do not reveal reserve
numbers. In an outburst of honesty then BHP petroleum chief Mike
Yeager told the APPEA conference
in Adelaide in 2012 that Bass Strait could
supply east coast markets "indefinitely".

AEMO estimated a shortfall of between at least 150-250TJ/day in
Gladstone between 2015 and 2018. By contrast, AEMO forecasts a much smaller
shortfall of some 50-100TJ/day in NSW — but not until 2018 — and this only on
peak days in winter. Even without new CSG projects in NSW, there are other ways
to manage these peaks: up to 150TJ/day can be stored in the Moomba-Sydney
pipeline — by increasing the pressure, known as "linepack" — and another
120TJ/day will be available on a short-term basis from the gas storage facility
which AGL has under construction in Newcastle.

NSW may not need new CSG projects at all.

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