By Irina Slav
With global gas supplies growing faster than demand and forecasters warning of a deepening glut, it was only a matter of time before analysts began talking about a gas version of OPEC with the power to control international prices. But is an OGEC even possible?
There is already an organization of gas exporters. It’s called the Gas Exporting Countries Forum and involves a dozen countries, led by Russia, Qatar, and Iran. The list of members also includes Nigeria—Africa’s top LNG producer—Egypt, which has recently staked a claim in the international gas market with a number of discoveries, and Libya.
Of the top 10 natural gas exporters in the world, four are members of GECF, led by Russia, which is the largest exporter of the commodity in the world. That could potentially give the organization enough clout to influence the international gas market the way OPEC does with the oil market. There is only one catch: first, there has to be an international gas market.
Energy policy researcher Rauf Mummadov from the Middle East Institute wrote in a recent article on GECF that this is the most fundamental difference between OPEC and the gas organization. While there is a well developed international market for crude oil with price benchmarks and baskets, the market for natural gas is far from international in this sense of the word. Natural gas is certainly traded internationally, but a lot of it is shipped by pipelines, which limits the destinations, and hence, the internationalization potential of the commodity. There is, however, LNG, and LNG is changing things.
As much as a third of all LNG is traded on the spot market, Mummadov notes, and on this market, prices are not linked to oil benchmarks, which is not the case with long-term gas contracts. This portion of LNG trade could grow: in a buyers’ market spot prices are a lot more attractive than long-term commitments. Why a buyers’ market? Because of the surge in LNG production and export capacity across the world that caused the oversupply.
This, according to some analysts, is the ripe time to go full OPEC for GECF.
In 2006, five years after GECF was set up, Hadi Hallouche from the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies wrote in a paper dedicated to GECF that the forum was far from a cartel organization, but added that this could change, “particularly in a situation of over-supply in the future.”
We are now in a situation of oversupply, and this oversupply is only set to deepen. The conditions seem to be perfect for a gas OPEC, as energy researcher Nikos Tsafos from the Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote in a recent commentary. Like Mummadov, Tsafos also notes the increase in spot market-traded LNG, the expansion in LNG capacity, and the already present overhang in supply, all of which are factors favoring “OPEC behaviour.”
Yet there is one important factor that is likely to discourage this OPEC behaviour for the time being. Two of the largest LNG exporters in the world are not GECF members, and they are highly unlikely to become members. These are, of course, the United States and Australia, both of which have been busy boosting their LNG export capacity in the past few years. Today, the U.S. is the fourth-largest gas exporter globally, after Russia, Qatar, and Norway. Norway, by the way, is as unlikely as the other two to join GECF.
So, the time may be ripe for GECF to go into cartel mode, but it’s anyone guess if it will go down this road. Its chances of successfully adjusting production levels in a way that would lead to higher prices are questionable because of the distribution of LNG capacity geographically, but also because many GECF members are also OPEC members. They may have just had enough of being restrained in their fossil fuel production already.