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Potential US-Saudi LNG trade is 'stunning reminder' of shale's impact

Saudi Arabia is shopping for American natural gas, a development industry observers said shows how U.S. shale gas is transforming global energy markets.

Charif Souki, the co-founder of U.S. LNG export hopeful Tellurian Inc. and the former CEO of Cheniere Energy Inc., said in an interview that his new company is marketing to Saudi Arabia, although he added, "We talk to everybody."

The New York Times first reported that the developer was "attempting to make energy deals" with Saudi Arabia in a Nov. 5 story about the investor reaction to arrests of Saudi ministers and princes. The Wall Street Journal on Dec. 20 said Tellurian has had "initial conversations" with Saudi Aramco about the state-run oil company either taking an equity stake in the proposed Driftwood export project or buying some of its LNG.

"They need gas for their western province, and it's a lot cheaper to bring in LNG than to build a pipeline from the eastern province, where they have the oil and gas reserves, all the way through the country to the western province," Souki told S&P Global Market Intelligence. "Now, just because it's logical doesn't mean it will happen, but it's one of the candidates."

"We've talked to them. They've talked to us," Souki said. "They're aware of what we are and what we do."

Tellurian is seeking equity investors at a price of $1,500 per tonne for its proposed Driftwood LNG export project in southwest Louisiana. The model is new for the U.S., where six multibillion-dollar natural gas liquefaction and export facilities are under construction and a long list of others want to get there.

Jason Bordoff, founding director of Columbia University's Center on Global Energy Policy and a former energy adviser to President Barack Obama, said on Twitter that the possibility of U.S. LNG making it to Saudi Arabia is "a stunning reminder of how dramatically shale has transformed the energy landscape."

"For 4 decades, US energy policy has obsessed over dependence on Mideast oil," he wrote, linking the Journal's story. "Now Aramco is looking to invest in US supply & import US gas."

In addition to conversations about LNG, Aramco has "inquired" about acquiring assets in the Permian and Eagle Ford shales in Texas, the Journal reported, citing people familiar with the matter.

Aramco is reportedly also in talks with other, unnamed U.S. LNG export companies. A spokesman for the Freeport LNG Development LP project under construction in Texas said he was not aware of any such conversations. A spokesman for Cheniere declined to comment, and other U.S. LNG export companies did not comment.

Greg Vesey, CEO of LNG Ltd., would not discuss specific marketing efforts for the proposed Magnolia LNG export project but he said, "We find the Middle East to be an attractive market."

Aramco CEO Amin Nasser told Petroleum Economist in October that the country was looking to increase the amount of domestically produced natural gas in its overall energy mix from 50% to 70%, supplementing those volumes with imports. "Saudi Aramco is engaging currently with a lot of companies to identify opportunities for gas internationally," he said in an interview.

During a trip to the United Arab Emirates, U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry told reporters that the U.S. had offered gas to Saudi Arabia, according to Bloomberg.

A spokesperson for the State Department's Bureau of Energy Resources said the Trump administration would welcome such ties. "Energy security is at the foundation of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, and we would be proud to have reliable, cost-competitive U.S. LNG be part of that equation," the spokesperson said, noting that promoting U.S. LNG is a priority for the administration.

Efforts to sign LNG deals with Saudi Arabia come ahead of Aramco's planned IPO, the largest offer ever based on the government's $2 trillion valuation of the company. Aramco, the world's top crude exporter, would sell about 5% of the company.

"If you think about it, selling part of your oil business and using that money to buy part of a gas business makes a lot of sense if you believe that oil is a sunset industry and gas has a long life," Jason Feer, head of business intelligence at oil broker and ship broker Poten & Partners, said in an email.

Feer called Tellurian a "reasonable candidate" for Saudi investment, but he also pointed to other U.S. brownfield LNG projects. "There is no shortage of LNG projects looking for equity investments," he said.

Saudi Arabia's interest in U.S. gas could signal that the country is concerned that domestic demand growth could outpace domestic production growth, said Jane Nakano, senior fellow with the energy and national security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Or Aramco could be looking to dabble in trading U.S. LNG, she said, "and not necessarily bringing the molecules back to the kingdom."