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Buyers seeking flexibility in pricing mechanisms

Sufficient long-term contracts needed to finance construction

Houston — NextDecade's offer to tie long-term LNG supply contracts to the global crude price benchmark has boosted commercial efforts for its proposed Rio Grande LNG export terminal as it prepares to announce initial offtake agreements by the end of next month, an executive said Monday.

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Developers of the second wave of US liquefaction projects have primarily been indexing contracts to the US Henry Hub gas price, based on proximity to Gulf Coast terminals and a key source of feedgas for the facilities.

Buyers, however, have been pushing for more flexible contract terms, including with pricing mechanisms. In December, Tellurian announced for its proposed Driftwood LNG export terminal the first long-term contract by a US supplier linked to Platts JKM, the benchmark price for spot LNG in Northeast Asia. In NextDecade's case, the Brent index offering is one of several pricing options it is pursuing with potential customers.

"Our Brent indexation offering has accelerated commercial marketing of our Rio Grande LNG project," Patrick Hughes, vice president of corporate strategy, external affairs and investor relations, said in an email responding to questions. Hughes said NextDecade expects to announce initial contracts in the first quarter, which ends March 31, and complete contracts in the second and third quarter to support up to three liquefaction trains at the time the developer makes its final investment decision. FID is expected in the third quarter, with commercial operations targeted to begin in 2023.

For many years, oil-indexation was the standard globally for pricing contracts in the LNG markets. Most of the non-US projects are selling LNG on an oil-index that has traditionally priced at 10-14% Brent/MMBtu, S&P Global Platts Analytics data showed.

This indexation puts the commodity price risk on the producer. In other words, the developer would lose money if the price of Brent falls too low. However, the contracts are typically written with a floor, so that if crude falls too low, the developer would be protected on the downside.

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There are still potential risks. Crude oil-indexation has historically meant higher supply costs for the LNG buyers. In Asian economies, especially Japan, there is a push to reduce the countries' overall exposure to oil. Such contracts may also create more overhead in terms of financial hedging, with a US developer needing an active hedging portfolio to manage its supply cost risks. Securing bank financing for a new US terminal with contracts indexed to Brent could be difficult, depending on the differential between the price at which you source your gas and the price at which you sell it.

"Diversifying away from crude-linked gas generally makes sense, but that doesn't mean there isn't still an opportunity for pockets of destination-flexible crude-linked gas," Wells Fargo Securities analyst Michael Webber said in an interview. "There's still room for outliers and creative commercial solutions."

In December, Wells Fargo ranked NextDecade's Rio Grande LNG 17th on a list of 40 global liquefaction terminal projects and expansions. The ranking covered only the first two trains at Rio Grande LNG.

OTHER OPTIONS

NextDecade is also giving customers the option to structure LNG supply and purchase agreements indexed to US pricing points such as Henry Hub, Agua Dulce, and/or Waha. In an investor presentation issued on its website Monday, NextDecade said it believes that its range of pricing mechanisms offers it potentially higher netbacks as oil prices rise, with downside protection.

NextDecade still must find a contractor to build its Brownsville, Texas, terminal, at a cost that would make the project viable. A deal with McDermott International was nixed in September 2018, after which NextDecade launched a competitive bid process to find a contractor. Final bids are due April 22.

NextDecade expects to receive a permit decision from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in July. Two other developers also have proposed LNG export terminals for Brownsville - Texas LNG and Exelon-backed Annova LNG. The commission has said in public filings that having three LNG export terminals built in Brownsville within a similar time frame would have cumulative environmental impacts. Whether such concerns ultimately impact the permit decisions is unclear.

-- Harry Weber and Ross Wyeno, newsdesk@spglobal.com

-- Edited by Annie Siebert, newsdesk@spglobal.com