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LNG production began Wednesday at Cheniere Energy's export terminal near Corpus Christi, Texas, as the facility prepares to ship its first cargo, a spokesman said.

The terminal is the third major export facility in the US to enter service that produces LNG from shale gas, boosting US efforts to be a bigger player in the global LNG market.

An unladen LNG tanker, the Golar Tundra, has been moored to a jetty at the terminal since Sunday. The spokesman, Eben Burnham-Snyder, said the tanker was expected to carry the first cargo sometime soon, though the exact timing was unclear. The destination once it departs was not disclosed.

An event to mark the opening of the Texas facility is scheduled for Thursday. The CEO of the Port of Corpus Christi Authority, Sean Strawbridge, has said he expects the first cargo to ship soon after that.

Feedgas flows to the facility have been steady since ramping up in earnest in September, S&P Global Platts Analytics data show.

Cheniere became the first US exporter of LNG produced from shale gas in February 2016 when its Sabine Pass terminal in Louisiana shipped its initial cargo. Dominion Energy began exporting LNG in March from its Cove Point terminal in Maryland.

Currently, Cheniere has five liquefaction trains in operation at Sabine Pass. A final investment decision is expected by early 2019 on whether to build a sixth train there. At Corpus Christi, three trains are under construction. Train 1 is producing the first commissioning cargo.

In its annual World Energy Outlook, released Tuesday, the International Energy Agency said the recent pickup in approvals of new liquefaction capacity in the US, Canada and Qatar after a relative lull had boosted hopes that a feared global supply shortage in the 2020s will be averted.

But, the agency said, LNG market uncertainty remains heading into a pivotal time for project decisions.

Because export terminals and the infrastructure needed to turn the LNG back into pipeline-ready gas can take years and billions of dollars to complete, 2019 is seen as a make-or-break year for a number of developers.

A steady flow of additional projects will still be required to meet LNG demand around the mid-2020s, the IEA said.

MARKET MECHANICS

Cheniere, for its part, is eager to grow. Recently, market fundamentals have been a bit volatile, with US natural gas prices rising heading into the peak winter demand period.

Atlantic Basin LNG vessel charter rates have risen to a high of $140,000/day in November, the highest monthly average since August 2012. This suggests that vessel charter costs in November have risen to roughly $1.90/MMBtu for deliveries to the Platts JKM market, a 118% jump year on year, and fully loaded shipping costs are now more than $3/MMBtu.

But with Platts JKM, the benchmark price for spot LNG in Northeast Asia, still trending above $10/MMBtu, a US Gulf Coast LNG exporter is still capturing an estimated $3.00/MMBtu netback to Asia, with roughly $1-$2/MMBtu of upside if it has secured its own shipping capacity.

(Updates throughout with analysis, background)

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

--Edited by Keiron Greenhalgh, newsdesk@spglobal.com