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Houston — Cheniere Energy wants as much of its capacity sold as possible before it advances a proposed midscale liquefaction expansion at its Texas export terminal, though it sees two recent gas agreements with producers as a positive first step, CEO Jack Fusco said Tuesday.

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During a news briefing with a small group of reporters on the sidelines of the Gastech conference in Houston, Fusco said Cheniere does not want to be overly exposed to volatile commodity prices, and it will continue to seek innovative ways to market its volumes.

For now, Cheniere remains on track to make a final investment decision on the up to 9.5 million mt/year Stage 3 expansion by the first half of next year, he said. The biggest US LNG exporter, like its competitors, has had to be more creative finding buyers for new trains and terminals because of the ongoing trade tension between Washington and Beijing, which has effectively cut off US deliveries to China.

"You should expect us to try to firm and term up as much as we possibly can," Fusco said of commercial agreements tied to the expansion. "We could build it in pieces."

Cheniere could FID the expansion and then build three to five trains instead of doing all seven trains at one time, he said.

"We have a lot of flexibility, but we are really targeting to do a full FID next year," Fusco said.

The model of the recent gas agreements allow the upstream developers to access a global price by selling their produced gas to world markets through Cheniere's Corpus Christi terminal. It exposes the exploration and production companies to greater price risk.

In return for marketing the gas to world buyers, Cheniere gets an undisclosed fee that covers liquefaction and other costs. Cheniere plans to use both the EOG and Apache deals to commercialize the Stage 3 expansion but executives said the company is open to other forms of offtake agreements for the project's remaining capacity.

As it stands, Cheniere executives say there is a limited pool of US oil and gas companies who it would consider signing such a contract with.

"When you look at the people that are under pressure those are more independent Appalachian, pure-type producers," Corey Grindal, Cheniere's senior vice president of gas supply, said at the briefing. "The ones that we're primarily talking to are really oil-based."

Cheniere is currently the only major US LNG exporter to have a long-term offtake contract with a Chinese buyer. It has been insulated from the 25% tariffs that China is imposing on imports of US cargoes because of the take-or-pay nature of the agreement with its counterparty, PetroChina.

"They have elected to divert the cargoes, and we are happy to send it wherever they want to," Fusco said. "That's one of the benefits they get from US LNG is flexibility, and they have been very creative as far as swapping with either Korea or with Japan, and they pay us, so it's a match made in heaven in that respect."

Fusco acknowledged that over the longer term, it remains a challenging environment for US exporters and developers to find buyers, if the Chinese market is cut off.

"We all just have to work a little bit harder to find those opportunities," he said.

-- Harry Weber, harry.weber@spglobal.com

-- Corey Paul, corey.paul@spglobal.com

-- Edited by Richard Rubin, richard.rubin@spglobal.com