An abbreviated history of LNG in Asia and a look towards its future
– by Paul Everingham
October 2024 will mark 60 years since a very special cargo arrived by sea in the United Kingdom from Algeria.
The name of the vessel was the Methane Princess. Aboard was a shipment of liquefied natural gas (LNG). Its successful journey is widely regarded as the start of the global commercial LNG export industry.
In the nearly six decades since, worldwide LNG trade has grown remarkably, reaching $US450 billion in 2022 as energy security and supply and geopolitical tensions collided.
— SIGTTO (@SIGTTO) October 12, 2020
Over that period, LNG’s impact on Asia, its people and economies has been profound.
Japan’s first imported cargo of LNG arrived in 1969, with a rapid expansion in consumption in the 1980s coinciding with stunning economic growth.
The Republic of Korea started importing LNG in 1981, at the beginning of an economic and manufacturing boom that significantly improved the country’s standard of living.
Singapore’s transition from an oil-based energy system to one built on natural gas began in the early 2000s with pipeline deliveries from Indonesia and Malaysia. The country’s first LNG terminal opened in 2013 and Singapore continues to develop a role as a trading hub for the commodity.
China’s volume of LNG imports, meanwhile, increased five-fold from 2012 to 2021, a period of time during which it overtook Japan as the world’s biggest importer.
And now a new era of opportunity looms large for Asia and its relationship with natural gas.
Across the region many developing economies still rely on coal for electricity generation that is helping drive much-needed economic growth.
All of these countries – irrespective of their economic standing – are trying to increase and sustain growth while simultaneously working to meet a variety of climate targets in line with the Paris Agreement.
But it’s not nearly as simple as just taking coal out of the equation and hoping for the best. Power in Asia’s homes and workplaces needs to stay on if living standards are to be maintained, let alone improved. Striking a successful balance between economic growth and emissions reductions is especially challenging for developing economies.
Asian investment in renewable energy has increased massively in recent years. But for a variety of reasons – include intermittency issues, battery limitations, lack of sun/wind and absence of land space – renewables aren’t yet ready to shoulder the load and can’t be the solution everywhere.
Enter natural gas, the cleanest of the fossil fuels and one which emits less than half as much CO2 as coal when burned.
Natural gas stands out as a reliable and effective transition fuel that will allow the countries and industries of Asia to meet both economic and climate objectives. While the renewable technology and low carbon future fuels of tomorrow are still under development, natural gas can help bridge a gap now and over the next few decades.
The Asia Natural Gas and Energy Association (ANGEA) and its member companies recognise that gas comes with its own emissions profile that must be managed – in production, transport and consumption. It’s something the world’s gas, power and shipping industries are working very hard to address, through energy efficiency improvements and extensive research and development of technological solutions like carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS).
Effective and widespread CCUS investment has been identified by the International Energy Association as absolutely integral to the success of global energy transition. The world cannot meet its climate targets unless Asia does, and that won’t happen without hugely accelerated implementation of CCUS over the next 10 years.
ANGEA’s membership – comprising the full spectrum of the gas supply chain – is at forefront of efforts to ensure that becomes a reality, collaborating with governments and industries throughout Asia on not only the technical aspects of CCUS solutions but also the regulatory, policy and financial frameworks required to support them.
There are, of course, global challenges around both the quantity of supply and affordability of LNG, which have been exacerbated by geopolitical events of the past two years. Asian countries that are without significant indigenous gas resources of their own are particularly susceptible to such forces.
Without piped Russian gas they had previously relied upon, European countries have looked to LNG to address urgent and critical energy needs. Germany, for example, started 2022 with no LNG import capability but had floating terminals up and running before the year was out and is now projected to be the world’s fourth-biggest importer by the end of the decade.
The result of Europe’s pivot to LNG has been that supply that would otherwise have been available to Asia has either come off the market or became highly expensive.
For some developing Asian economies the outcome has been stark and they have had to fall back on coal, in the process setting back climate progress.
The obvious solution to all of this is opening more global LNG supply, to push ahead with new projects around the world that will help meet Asia’s long-term gas demand at a cost that is affordable to all its nations.
The US LNG export industry, which surged after Russian’s invasion of Ukraine, will need to maintain its growth if there is to be adequate supply for both Europe and Asia in years to come.
Countries, like Australia, which has a long and proud history of exporting gas to Asia (particularly to Japan), must continue to be an energy partner the region can rely upon.
Entrants to the global LNG export market such as Canada have opportunities to build industries that will deliver significant benefits at home and abroad.
But the right policy and fiscal settings are required to make all of this happen.
We witnessed in Australia early in 2023 how gas policy changes – designed to address domestic energy affordability and supply on home soil – can have unintended consequences that potentially put at risk crucial investment and long-term LNG trade relationships.
Elsewhere in the world, some governments are simply wary of fossil fuel developments. And there are banks which will not countenance any form of investment in hydrocarbon activity.
I fear the global gas supply chain and its value to Asia meeting emissions targets are not being fully appreciated.
As an industry, we are producing natural gas with an ever-lower carbon intensity, progress that is accelerating rapidly as CCUS technology continues to develop. Over the next two decades gas looms as the most viable starting point for future low emissions fuels like hydrogen and ammonia.
Much of Asia, meanwhile, remains reliant on coal. Switching to gas can help significantly reduce emissions over the next 30 years but this requires significant infrastructure planning and investment that needs to start now. Most of all, such energy transition needs certainty of supply.
For a country such as Japan, which has virtually no native natural resources of its own, energy security is absolutely paramount.
It’s probably been lost somewhat in the obscurities of time but one of the reasons why Japan first started importing LNG was because of concerns over air pollution associated with the burning of coal and oil.
The world now understands climate a lot better than it did in the 1960s. However, a good part of the equation remains the same.
Some of Asia’s fastest developing economies are ready to start changing their energy mix to help achieve environmental objectives – Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines among them. Other Asian countries, including Japan and Korea, are seeking to make their very developed economies and energy systems as low in carbon as possible.
They can’t do it alone. The support of the world – and access to its gas – is needed.
Paul Everingham is the inaugural CEO of the Asia Natural Gas and Energy Association (ANGEA), which works with governments, society and industry throughout Asia to build effective and integrated energy policies that meet each country’s climate objectives. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on LinkedIn.