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US shale boom to drive demand for gas carriers

[ATHENS] Increased US exports of liquefied petroleum gas amid higher shale oil production will boost demand for ships that carry gases such as propane, butanes and ethane, Paris Kassidokostas-Latsis, director of Athens-headquartered Latsco Shipping, said.

Shipments of LPG from the US rose to a record 506,000 barrels a day in April, up 65 per cent from a year earlier, Energy Information Administration data show. Production of the gases has grown as high oil prices and improvements in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing techniques have allowed producers to tap into crude and gas trapped in layers of shale rock.

"The US shale oil revolution is the main game-changer for the LPG market," Mr Kassidokostas-Latsis said. "We are very optimistic on further growth of demand for LPG ships, especially from the US on the back of shale."

LPG in the US, used for cooking and heating and as a feedstock for the petrochemicals industry, is mostly produced as a byproduct of natural gas. US crude output reached 8.48 million barrels a day in the week ended June 13, the highest since October 1986, while natural gas output is forecast to hit a record for the fourth straight year.

The ample supply of gases has depressed prices along the US Gulf Coast, benefiting petrochemical manufacturers and encouraging exports. That has increased demand for the largest ships hauling LPG, known as VLGCs, that can hold 80,000 cubic metres.

Latsco ordered 12 ships in 2013, including four VLGCs from South Korea's Hyundai Heavy Industries Co, three long-range product tankers from Hyundai Samho Heavy Industries and five medium-range product tankers from Hyundai Mipo Dockyard "worth just under US$700 million", Mr Kassidokostas-Latsis said.

Product tankers carry refined petroleum products.

"The long-term fundamentals are strong for the products market in general," he said.

The EIA projects the US will be a net exporter of LPG through 2040, because of continued increases in natural gas and oil production. Shale gas production in the US will grow to 19.8 trillion cubic feet in 2040 from 9.7 trillion cubic feet in 2012, the EIA says.

Freight rates for ships carrying LPG are set to "remain robust through the summer", Arctic Securities said on April 29, citing "seasonal strength in exports of US LPG". The total fleet of such vessels is 160 ships.

"We took delivery of the first long-range product tanker this month and all other vessels will be in the water by 2016," Mr Kassidokostas-Latsis said. The Latsis family contributed equity and added some "traditional bank financing from abroad", he said.

Latsco already operates four VLGCs, each with a carrying capacity of 82,000 cubic metres, seven medium-range product tankers with total capacity of 343,815 deadweight tonnes and four long-range product tankers with combined capacity of 335,654 deadweight tonnes.

Recently there's been a build-up in the LPG order book with the number of vessels scheduled for delivery in 2015 and 2016 set to increase the fleet by 50 per cent, Mr Kassidokostas-Latsis said. "In any other sector that would be a red flag, but these new ships will be absorbed by extremely buoyant export growth, primarily from the US."

Latsco doesn't fear the long-term effects of the expansion of the Panama Canal on VLGC rates. The widening of the waterway linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans will cut the number of LPG carriers needed to transport the fuel as round-trip voyages between Tokyo and Houston will be shortened by around 27,200 kilometres.

"Once the expanded canal opens, we may see a slowdown in freight rates for VLGCs as the distance to the Far East from the US Gulf will be shorter, but in the long term this will make LPG more attractive and competitive compared with other commodities and that will lead to an increase in demand and a readjustment of rates," Mr Kassidokostas-Latsis said. - Bloomberg