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US gas exports to Mexico face pandemic-related downside risks into summer

Highlights

US pipeline exports in May, lowest since late 2018

Virus cuts Mexico's gas demand by 600 MMcf/d

New York — As the coronavirus pandemic continues to ravage energy demand in Mexico, US gas pipeline exports to end-users south of the border have averaged their lowest this month since late 2018.

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Month to date, exports have remained just under 4.6 Bcf/d as power generators and industrial end-users continue to curtail their operations, showed data compiled by S&P Global Platts Analytics.

In the power sector, daily load has averaged just 33.2 aGW in May, or about 12% below year-ago levels, reducing the call on gas-fired power plants. Along with lower consumption from the industrial sector, total gas demand in Mexico has fallen to an average 7.4 Bcf/d in May – its lowest in 14 months.

According to Platts Analytics, pandemic-related disruptions have likely cut Mexico's gas demand by some 600 MMcf/d since social distancing measures were first enacted in late March.

With no clear end in sight to the pandemic, at least some coronavirus-related demand destruction is likely to continue into the summer when cooling demand in Mexico typically lifts US gas exports to annual highs.

By the third quarter, however, an ensuing economic contraction in Mexico is likely to prolong the downturn for gas demand and US pipeline exports. According to a recent report from S&P Global Ratings, Mexico's gross domestic product will contract by an estimated 6.7% this year – the largest economic contraction among Latin America's major economies.

For US suppliers, particularly those in the Permian Basin, the biggest opportunity for a rebound in gas exports will come with the startup of Fermaca's delayed Wahalajara pipeline system.

Wahalajara

According to sources inside Mexico, the Wahalajara system is now mechanically complete but has been stalled by Mexico's state-owned power utility CFE and system operator Cenagas, S&P Global Platts reported earlier this month.

Neither Fermaca, CFE nor Cenagas have not responded to repeated requests by email for comment.

CFE, which has contracted most of the capacity of Wahalajara, has yet to build some of the power plants previously intended to receive gas supplied by the system, sources said. A former Cenagas official also told Platts that the system operator has conditioned at least one Wahalajara interconnection to the national grid with an agreement by Fermaca to allow Cenagas to operate and manage the asset.

Downstream access

The Wahalajara system is composed of four major pipeline segments: Tarahumara in the north; El Encino – La Laguna, and La Laguna – Aguascalientes, the two central segments; and the southernmost Villa de Reyes – Aguascalientes – Guadalajara (VAG) half-loop pipeline.

According to Platts Analytics, a fully operational Wahalajara system should boost West Texas exports to Mexico by as much as 400 MMcf/d, as the system starts delivering to the Tierra Mojada power plant near Guadalajara and begins displacing LNG imports at Pacific Coast Manzanillo LNG import terminal.

Current forecasts from Platts Analytics show US pipeline exports to Mexico reaching an annual high around 5.8 Bcf/d in August – just 500 MMcf/d higher than prior-year levels.