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London — German utility Uniper has signed a provisional agreement with ExxonMobil for the US major to take regasification capacity at the planned floating LNG import terminal at Wilhelmshaven in northwestern Germany, Uniper said Friday.

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According to the heads of agreement, ExxonMobil Gas Marketing Europe has agreed to book a "substantial share" of long-term regasification capacity at the facility.

"The heads of agreement is an important step towards the realization of the Wilhelmshaven floating storage and regasification unit project," Uniper chief commercial officer Keith Martin said in a statement.

The parties will continue their discussions in the coming months, with the goal to enter into binding agreements "soon."

Wilhelmshaven is one of three planned LNG import terminals in northern Germany along with the Gasunie and RWE-backed Brunsbuttel plant and the proposed Stade import facility.

The proposed send-out capacity of the Wilhelmshaven FSRU is 10 Bcm/year, while the proposed LNG storage capacity is 263,000 cu m. Operations are planned to start in the second half of 2022.

"The FSRU will provide LNG companies from the US, but also other countries from around the world, with the opportunity to deliver LNG into the German and European market," Martin said.

"This will increase security of supply for customers at competitive price levels," he said.

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LNG send-out in Europe is currently at elevated levels due to weak Asian demand and following years of subdued LNG imports into Europe.

Total LNG send-out in Europe is currently running at some 237 million cu m/d or about 39% of installed capacity, compared with 122 million cu m/d in January 2018 and 137 million cu m/d in January 2017, according to data from S&P Global Platts Analytics and Entsog.

EXXONMOBIL ROLE

For ExxonMobil, holding capacity in the German FSRU could be of strategic importance on several fronts.

The US major is a key gas producer in Germany, accounting for around 40% of the country's 7 Bcm/year output, but its production is falling fairly quickly as older assets deplete.

It produced net 299 MMcf/d (8 million cu m/d) in Germany in 2017, down from 356 MMcf/d in 2015.

Jonathan Stern, leading gas analyst at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, said that ExxonMobil would likely see the LNG terminal as a way of maintaining its leading presence in Germany.

"Given their established sales in Germany and their LNG supplies, ExxonMobil would probably want to have the option to land there," Stern said.

ExxonMobil is also a key player in the global LNG sector, with interests in liquefaction plants in Qatar and Indonesia, as well as in Golden Pass, the import-turning-export LNG terminal in the US.

Its relationship with Qatar could be key -- as well as holding stakes in liquefaction projects in Qatar, ExxonMobil has also partnered with Qatar Petroleum in import terminals, such as at South Hook in the UK and Adriatic LNG in Italy.

Last year, there was also speculation that Qatar could be eyeing a role in a German LNG import terminal, either as a shareholder or a supplier of LNG.

As a US company, ExxonMobil could also be looking to further the ambitions of US President Donald Trump, who wants US LNG to compete against Russian pipeline gas in Europe.

ExxonMobil also produces gas from the giant onshore Groningen field in the Netherlands as part of a 50:50 joint venture with Shell.

Output from Groningen -- which had been as high as 54 Bcm/year in 2013 -- has been restricted by the Dutch government due to the risk of earthquakes associated with production.

The current quota is 19.4 Bcm/year, but the cap is likely to be reduced further and the field is to be closed by 2030 or earlier.

"The demise of Groningen is an important issue for them," Stern said.

Stern said that the traditional links between Uniper forerunner Ruhrgas and ExxonMobil -- which was a key shareholder in Ruhrgas -- could also have had a part to play in the deal.

UNIPER AMBITIONS

For Uniper, the German company has said it wants to reach further agreements with other counterparties that expressed interest in regasification capacity in the terminal.

It also aims to develop the terminal as a multi-user facility. Last week, the company announced a memorandum of understanding with the Dutch company Titan LNG to develop small-scale products.

In December 2018, Japan's Mitsui O.S.K Lines (MOL) signed an agreement to own, finance and operate the FSRU, while Uniper continues to act as project developer and facilitator.

Uniper is also expanding its LNG business, and will supply up to 1 million mt of LNG from the US to southwestern Europe over the next three years.

Notably, it has signed an agreement with US LNG supplier Freeport giving the German company the right to export about 0.9 million mt/year of LNG from the US on a FOB basis, for 20 years.

--Lucie Roux, lucie.roux@spglobal.com

--Stuart Elliott, stuart.elliott@spglobal.com

--Edited by James Leech, newsdesk@spglobal.com