By Julian Murdoch
Headlines burned with blue flame over the idea of a natural gas cartel this week - but does anyone really care?
The short answer to the hypothetical question is: um, not really.
Echoing the vague hyperbole that permeates election season, parsing the headlines was an exercise in linguistic detective work. The Guardian's headline reads, "Russia, Iran and Qatar announce cartel that will control 60% of world's gas supplies." Halloween-level frightening, right?
The AP's headline is a little less inflammatory: "Russia, Iran and Qatar discuss forming gas cartel."
Somewhere in between lies CNBC's "Iran Sees Consensus for ‘Natural Gas OPEC'."
The truth is probably a mix of the headlines. What seems clear is that the three countries - who do indeed sit on 60% of the world's natural gas reserves - are agreeing to get together regularly and talk. Russia is emphasizing the idea of sharing ideas and technology for projects moving forward. Iran, unsurprisingly, is taking a less-nuanced line, drawing parallels to OPEC's ability to influence oil prices. The idea of a natural gas OPEC isn't new, but this is probably the closest the participants have come to organizing themselves into such a group.
Will it work?
"There's always some worry when these guys get together that they'll try to replicate OPEC," said Robert Ebel, senior adviser to the Energy and National Security Program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington, in an article by Nasser Karimi. "But they know that's not doable. They can try and get more control over gas, but it's not OPEC."
What's different is the substance itself: Natural gas is just different from oil. Yes, Russia, Iran and Qatar theoretically control more of it than anywhere else. But currently the market for natural gas is extraordinarily local. Natural gas prices in one area of the U.S. differ from those in others - not to mention the price differences between countries. (The good old Energy Information Administration tells us just how regional the market is every week.) Natural gas in the fall in California is running $5.41 per MMBtu. In the Northeast, where we're headed for the cold of winter, it's already over $7 per MMBtu. And the actual price of large-volume sales of natural gas doesn't fluctuate like oil, because it is traded on much-longer-term contracts - sometimes as long as 25 years.
And then of course, there's the fact that natural gas is cyclical.
For natural gas to become more of a global commodity - which is what this mini-OPEC would need, if it wanted to assert its power - there are some pretty serious transportation issues that need to be addressed. Natural gas is transported locally via pipeline. Long distance (overseas) transport requires liquefaction into liquid natural gas (LNG) for transport via tankers - different tankers than what currently transport oil, coal or grain. LNG requires unique handling and storage compared with regular natural gas, requiring the additional step of regasification once the LNG has been delivered to storage depots. Building those transport facilities is costly and requires long-term capital investment.
All this enforces a local market. In 2007, the U.S. imported only about 16% of its natural gas needs - and most of that came from our neighbors to the North via pipelines. Of what didn't come from Canada, 58% came from Trinidad and Tobago, and only 2% came from Qatar, the biggest LNG exporter. The supply from this theoretical cartel could literally vanish, and the microeconomic supply-and-demand equation at your gas stove would almost literally be unaffected.
Even if the long-term effects of the cartel had an impact, it's hard to imagine that the price of local natural gas in the U.S. could ever be influenced more by a global supply shortage than by the thermometer and the price of crude.
Chart from INO Futures and Commodities
Weather forecasts for the Northeast and Midwest, where the majority of home heating come from natural gas, have the ability to swing prices and are watched faithfully. (Seventy-two percent of homes in the Midwest are heated with natural gas. Nationally, the number is 52%.)
That doesn't mean a cartel would have no impact. In Western Europe and former Soviet bloc countries that rely on Russian imports for their natural gas, the day-to-day impact on consumers could be real. Russia has already used its control of pipelines in various disputes, and the idea that Russia could become stronger through a cartel is a source of concern for Europe.
But the idea of a natural gas OPEC controlling global natural gas prices just doesn't make sense. Long term - 15, even 30 years - a dominant cartel combined with a growing LNG infrastructure might have an impact, but for today's investor, focused primarily on U.S. commodity trading and the companies supporting ongoing development, it's just a nonissue.