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U.S. Exports First LNG Cargo from Gulf Coast

February 26, 2016

After years of planning, regulatory wrangling, and construction, liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports from the U.S. Gulf Coast finally commenced this week. The Asia Vision tanker left Cheniere Energy’s Sabine Pass export terminal in Louisiana on Wednesday evening, en route to Brazil with about three billion cubic feet (Bcf) of natural gas for state-owned Petroleo Brasileiro SA - Petrobras. The event marked the first ever LNG exports from the lower 48 states.

Cheniere’s application process for LNG exports at Sabine Pass began in July 2010 at a time when global natural gas prices were considerably higher than the current environment. Approved by the Federal Regulatory Commission in April 2012, Sabine Pass was at the forefront of an effort to ship inexpensive gas in the U.S. - largely the result of a boom in production from shale plays - to higher priced markets overseas. To date, ten terminals totaling 16.8 Bcf per day of LNG export capacity have received regulatory approval, while more than 20 additional projects have been proposed.

When U.S. natural gas prices were significantly discounted to international markets - particularly major consuming regions in Europe and Asia - a build-out of LNG export capacity made good economical sense. However, with global pricing under increased pressure from a mounting supply glut and slowing demand, many of the proposals still seeking regulatory approval are likely to be withdrawn, while some of the approved projects could also be canceled. Much in the same way that the rush to import LNG to the U.S. fizzled out about a decade ago, the export trend may also be losing steam before it ever really gets started.

Regardless of the ultimate end game for U.S. LNG exports, this week’s shipments from Sabine Pass represent a noteworthy step in exposing a generally-insulated domestic market to more international influence. The Cheniere terminal will initially have export capacity of 0.7 Bcf per day, ramping up to about 1.4 Bcf per day this summer. While those volumes alone are not enough to significantly impact the balance between supply and demand, LNG exports are yet another pull on the increasingly inexpensive domestic fuel source.