China's promise Wednesday to increase its energy purchases from the US by $52.4 billion over the next two years could spur more commercial activity for American liquefaction projects, but much will depend on the fate of existing LNG tariffs.
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The signing in Washington of the Phase 1 trade deal between China and the US amounts to a thawing of tensions that may once again allow key energy products, including LNG, to flow more freely between the countries.
No US cargoes have been delivered to China since March 2019.
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It was a welcome sign for energy interests, largely because China needs US energy. China is expected to become the world's biggest importer of LNG by the end of the decade, and the US could become the world's biggest LNG exporter even before then.
Charles Riedl, of the Center for Liquefied Natural Gas, called the deal a positive development for trade relations, but with a 25% tariff on US LNG remaining, "it continues to make it challenging for US LNG to go to China."
The American Petroleum Institute also welcomed the de-escalation of trade tensions but urged the Trump administration to "stay at the negotiating table until the US-China marketplace for trade is fully restored and all remaining tariffs are lifted."
As part of the agreement, China agreed to at least $200 billion in additional purchases of US goods and services over the next two years, including the $52.4 billion in energy, compared with a 2017 baseline. The energy buys are divided in unspecified amounts of LNG, crude oil, refined products and coal. China would buy $18.5 billion above the energy baseline in 2020, and then no less than $33.9 billion in 2021, with language projecting the trajectory to continue through 2025.
Ethanol is mentioned in a footnote under "other agricultural commodities" as part of the $32 billion in US agricultural products China agreed to buy over two years. But US ethanol exports to China would not likely resume unless China lowers its 70% import tariff that virtually eliminated flows last year.
US ethanol accounted for the vast majority of China's imports before the duty was imposed, and biofuel trade groups are uncertain US producers will benefit from the thaw.
"There is a healthy dose of skepticism around whether and how much China can really increase purchases to meet" the $32 billion agriculture total, said Katie Bays, co-founder of Washington-based Sandhill Strategy. "For ethanol, particularly, resuming imports commensurate to 2016 highs would only rake in an addition $500 million against the US trade deficit with China."
A senior administration official said while China has not committed to reduce its tariffs as part of the agreement, China will have to determine how to ensure its barriers, including tariffs, do not prevent it from reaching its targets.
"They do have an exclusion process, and my understanding is that they will continue to refine and improve that exclusion process," he said.
Tellurian CEO Meg Gentle, an LNG executive who attended the signing ceremony at the White House, said the deal "signals that US and Chinese companies can really renew engagement on trade of LNG."
She added, "We expect to see cargoes flow to China and actively resume."
It is safe to imagine that as long as the tariffs on Chinese imports of US LNG remain in place, Chinese investment in US LNG could be dampened, said a person involved in ongoing talks on US LNG project investment.
Cheniere Energy CEO Jack Fusco, who also was at the White House signing, called the agreement a positive development.
"The United States and China are natural partners on energy trade, and Cheniere looks forward to resuming deliveries of LNG to China," Fusco said.
Tellurian shares jumped 7.4% in New York trading on Wednesday, while Cheniere shares rose 2.2%.
US LNG export capacity is expected to reach nearly 13 Bcf/d by 2025, representing over 60% of global supply growth over the next six years. Less certain, however, is the ramp in downstream demand, expected to be led by East and Southeast Asia. Trade with China has completely dropped off following the ramp in tariffs last year from 10% to 25%, highlighting a key risk to the US LNG project development.
"It's a ceasefire, a step in the right direction," Michael Webber, managing partner of investment research firm Webber Research & Advisory, said of Wednesday's agreement. "The size of the step is yet to be determined."
Any thaw in US-China trade relations could significantly shift flows of US crude. China imports nearly 11 million b/d, making it the world's largest importer of crude.
China's crude imports will likely rise by 5.2% to 10.64 million b/d in 2020, according to Platts Analytics.
China backed away from directly buying US crude barrels during the past year, averaging only 190,000 b/d in 2019 through October, according data from the US Energy Information Administration. The US sent no barrels to China in October.
The drop was driven primarily by political uncertainty, although a 5% Chinese tariff in place on US crude imports may have limited the economic advantage of US grades.
According to Platts Analytics data, the arbitrage for US Gulf Coast Mars sour crude against Dubai crude into China was closed through much of 2019. Mars has been at a slight advantage to Dubai so far in January, averaging 48 cents/b.
There has been a slight uptick in China fixtures activity for US cargoes scheduled to load in February as freight rates for VLCCs have decreased slightly.
Vitol chartered the VLCC Olympic Lyra for a USGC-to-China voyage to be loaded February 8, according to Platts fixtures data. Trafigura fixed a cargo to be sent to China on the Bunga Kasturi Tiga on February 5, and Occidental Petroleum chartered an unnamed VLCC to be sent to China for loading on February 10.