North America could be a key supplier of natural gas to Asia and Europe, boosting supply security, but that will not equalize global prices for the fuel, the International Energy Agency's chief economist says.
The costs of processing the fuel in Canada and the United States, plus transportation, will mean the price differential has to remain for liquefied natural gas to be competitive in export markets, the Paris-based IEA's Fatih Birol said on Wednesday.
"They say, 'If these North Americans were to be kind people, were to be nice people, generous people, and export a lot of gas to Europe and to Asia, like oil markets, we'll see one gas market and the price differential will be closed,'" Mr. Birol told an audience in Calgary.
However, even if North America were able to ramp up exports immediately, "the prices would not converge," he said.
LNG cargoes have recently sold in Europe for about $11 (U.S.) per million British thermal units, and in Asia for $18. Meanwhile, U.S. natural gas has been fetching about $4.50.
When you add $5 to $6 to the U.S. price to account for liquefaction, transport and regasification, the margin nearly disappears in the case of Europe, he said. And in Asia, increased exports would likely shrink the differential.
"So it would not make a big difference in terms of prices because there is a big chunk that is called cost of transportation. As long as it is there, prices will never converge," Mr. Birol said.
The shale gas revolution in North America has given Canada and the United States major advantages due to ample supply and low prices. The sharp difference in the price of gas on either side of the Atlantic has cut into the competitiveness of energy-intensive companies in Europe, prompting some manufacturers to relocate operations to the United States, he said.
Security of supply has re-emerged as a major issue in Europe with tensions rising between Russia and Ukraine. Prime Minister Stephen Harper and U.S. President Barack Obama have said North America could help reduce Western Europe's dependence on Russian gas.
Mr. Birol declined to comment on how the situation might affect the North American energy sector.
However, there is only one LNG plant being built in North America, Cheniere Energy Inc.'s Sabine Pass LNG project in Louisiana.
In Canada, there are at least 14 proposals to build LNG facilities on the West Coast, though no developer has made a final investment decision. Industry players say that one of the hurdles has been difficulty in signing long-term supply deals.
Early this month CEO John Watson of Chevron Corp., which is proposing a plant in British Columbia in partnership with Apache Corp., said there is "tension" between buyers, who want to take advantage of cheap North American gas prices, and sellers, who'd love their supply linked to richer Asian oil prices.