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China needs more space below ground to store gas

Large, underground storage caverns seen as missing link to smooth out supply tightness and surging winter demand

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While China has plans to more than triple gas storage capacity by the end of next decade, that still might not be enough to keep pace with its growing appetite.

Singapore

WHILE China seeks more natural gas to meet booming demand from President Xi Jinping's clean-air drive, one part of the fuel's supply chain isn't growing fast enough to avoid a repeat of this winter's supply crunch.

Large, underground storage caverns are coming into focus as the missing link that the world's biggest energy user needs to smooth out supply between weak consumption in summer and surging demand in winter. While China has plans to more than triple storage capacity by the end of next decade, that still might not be enough to keep pace with its growing appetite, according to analysts at IHS Markit Ltd and Wood Mackenize Ltd.

"Chronic gas supply tightness will continue to be around because storage capacity won't be increasing to the point needed to deal with winter peaks," Zhou Xizhou, an energy analyst with IHS Markit in Beijing, said by phone.

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China National Petroleum Corp, the country's biggest gas producer and importer, said last week that the country has storage space equivalent to about 3.3 per cent of total demand. That's about 7.8 billion cubic metres, according to Bloomberg calculations. The government plans to increase that storage capacity to 14.8 billion cubic meters by 2020, and more than 35 billion by 2030. That would amount to 4.8 per cent and 5.8 per cent of demand, based on forecasts from Sanford C Bernstein & Co. The world average is 11.7 per cent, CNPC said.

In the US and Europe, companies inject gas into large underground caverns in summer and extract it in winter when people crank up the nozzles for heating. In the US, storage capacity is equivalent to about 17 per cent of annual consumption.

China's supply crunch this winter was due not only to the 15 per cent surge in demand, but also infrastructure that was ill-equipped to handle it. In Beijing, winter demand is 11 times higher than summer demand, so China has to ramp up domestic production and LNG imports to meet supply needs.

"The import terminals were all jammed full in the winter, and you were still short of gas," IHS Markit's Mr Zhou said. "The winter peak is not supposed to be handled by ramping up supply sources. You inject gas into storage in summer, and draw it out in winter - that's how you usually do it."

The country's relatively small storage capacity was also a contributing factor in the liquefied natural gas price shock this past winter, as it had to boost imports to match skyrocketing seasonal heating demand. Spot LNG in North Asia more than doubled from summer to US$11.527 per million British thermal units on Jan 15.

"China's gas storage levels are far lower than more mature gas markets like Europe, leaving China exceptionally reliant on LNG imports to manage seasonal demand swings," Saul Kavonic, an analyst with Wood Mackenzie in Singapore, said by email. "Even the recent government targets are still below storage levels seen in other mature markets."

CNPC, the parent of PetroChina Co, operates 10 of the country's 13 storage locations. This past winter it supplied 7.41 billion cubic metres from storage, or about 4.9 per cent of its sales. It said on its website on Thursday that it is renovating its current facilities and building seven additional ones in a bid to increase its capacity to 15 billion cubic metres by 2025.

On Sunday, the official Xinhua News Agency reported that CNPC will spend 21 billion yuan (S$4.4 billion) to build eight new storage facilities in Sichuan and Chongqing, adding 21 billion cubic metres of capacity. It didn't specify a timeline for completion and said the first phase of construction would add just 1.28 billion cubic metres.

There are a couple of hurdles to developing more storage capacity in China. One is that, unlike the US, the country doesn't have ample supply of cheap storage options such as depleted oil fields and underground salt caverns, Mr Zhou said.

The other is that the government keeps tight control over gas prices. In the US and Europe, whenever winter prices rise relative to summer, it creates incentive to invest in new storage to take advantage of the seasonal arbitrage. A more liberal gas-pricing regime in China might draw more companies into the storage space, Mr Zhou said.

"Achieving greater storage may also require further enabling policy that economically incentivises storage build from non-state-owned players," Wood Mackenzie's Mr Kavonic said. BLOOMBERG