Canada stands poised to become a major source of natural gas for Asia amid uncertainty over the future of energy exports from the United States.
But the country risks missing that opportunity if industry doesn't move fast enough, oil and gas companies warn.
The discovery of new ways to draw energy from massive pools of shale gas has boosted North America's reserves so dramatically that companies have scrambled to find new markets.
But fast-growing demand for gas in China – and even Japan, where nuclear energy is expected to play a more limited future role – is more likely to be fed from British Columbia than Texas or Arkansas, Murray Nunns, the president of Penn West Petroleum Ltd., said Monday.
"There's an ultimate belief that the U.S. won't export natural gas, because of energy security concerns," he said. That makes Canada the most likely "safety valve for North America."
Mr. Nunns's comments stem in part from Penn West's partnership with Mitsubishi Corp., the Japanese company that has been studying how to export gas from the B.C. coast jointly with Royal Dutch Shell PLC and Korea Gas Corp., according to sources.
Penn West hopes to gain access to such a facility through its relationship with Mitsubishi, which, Mr. Nunns said, "believes Canada is the logical jurisdiction to achieve that from, not the U.S."
Companies in the U.S. have, of course, pursued a series of LNG export plans from that country. Last month, for example, Cheniere Energy Partners received approval from the U.S. Department of Energy to begin gas exports from the Gulf Coast area, although it must still obtain the blessing of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commissions.
But the actions of a growing number of important international natural gas players appear to affirm a growing view of Canada as an important source of global gas exports.
At least four LNG export terminals have been envisaged for British Columbia's West Coast. Of those, two have been envisioned by major LNG shippers. Malaysia's state-owned Petronas, the world's second-largest LNG exporter, is pursuing one of those after a recent partnership deal with Progress Energy Resources Corp. for a stake in British Columbia natural gas fields.
"If you look at Southeast Asia's demand, we could handle multiple [LNG] projects off the West Coast," Michael Culbert, Progress's chief executive officer, told reporters. Western Canada's gas fields could support LNG exports of up to four billion cubic feet a day, he said. That figure is not far off the 5.5 billion cubic feet a day that are expected to flow from B.C.'s two major gas fields, the Montney and Horn River, by 2020.
Shell, which is working with Mitsubishi, is also a major global natural gas shipper. In May, it announced a decision to build the world's first floating LNG facility off Australia, and some in the industry have suggested that that technology would be a good fit for B.C., whose rugged coast makes it difficult to build a huge facility on land.
In an interview Monday, Shell Canada president Lorraine Mitchelmore said the company is "not necessarily looking at this [technology] for here" – but is a strong believer in the need to ship away Canadian gas.
"It's really essential for us to get exports to the West Coast," Ms. Mitchelmore said. "We're the third-largest [gas producer] in the world. ... We should be looking at different customers."
Such plans are especially important to Canadian producers, who have long relied on a U.S. market that now finds itself flooded with a surge of domestic production.
But for Asian consumers, Canada may also make sense. Canada's West Coast is about as far from South Korea as Qatar, another major gas source. And Canadian gas is better situated than that in the U.S., where the largest shale plays are in the south and east of the country.
The Montney and Horn River plays together contain an estimated 1,500 trillion cubic feet of gas, and though only a fraction of that is likely to ever be produced, it is located just hundreds of kilometres from Pacific tidewater. Calculations done by CN Rail suggest that it takes 51 fewer hours to sail to Tokyo from Prince Rupert, for example, than from Los Angeles.
Canadian producers are also tempted by the potential for greater profit in Asia, where gas sells nearer the price of oil, and far above its current rates in North America.
"We think it will lift the price of not only natural gas in Western Canada but natural gas in North America," Mike Graham, the head of Encana Corp.'s Canadian division, said Monday. "There's a big incentive to invest in LNG."
But, Mr. Nunns warned, industry must move quickly to seize that opportunity, lest the dream of West Coast exports turn into the dream of Canadian Arctic gas, which remains stranded without a pipeline despite decades of effort.
"The economic window ... will come and go," he said. "We saw that with the Mackenzie Delta. If something doesn't happen facilitated by all parties, the economic opportunity bypasses the area."