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18 March 2011

Japan’s energy needs post-earthquake aren’t a worry yet

A spike in Japanese demand for LNG can easily be met, but futures markets should calm themselves.

By Liam McLaughlin

As Japan struggles to cope with the aftermath of the 11 March earthquake, issues of energy security are becoming more prevalent not only in Japan, but across the world.

Five nuclear power plants were affected by the Sendai earthquake, and of those, one has suffered a partial meltdown – the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Three major oil refineries were also closed. Amid scrambled attempts to avert a full-scale, Chernobyl-style disaster, fears are now rising about how the shortfall in Japan’s energy production – which Société Générale estimates to be roughly 11.3 gigawatts, enough to power as many as 11 million households – will be managed for the foreseeable future.

Consumption of electricity generated from nuclear power stands at 30 per cent of Japan’s total usage. The government had previously planned to increase this to 40 per cent by 2017, and then 50 per cent by 2030.

Whether or not these plans will now be halted or contested as a result of the disaster at Fukushima I remains to be seen. What is certain, though, is that Japan will have to meet the demand for energy somehow, despite a large impairment in production facilities.

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Japan’s energy mix still heavily relies on oil, which accounted for 45 per cent of national energy consumption in 2009, but it is also the world’s largest importer of liquefied natural gas (LNG) – in 2010 the Japanese shipped over 70 million tonnes of it. The biggest suppliers of oil and LNG to Japan are Saudi Arabia and Qatar, respectively, with the United Arab Emirates the second-largest supplier of both commodities.

With revolutions still raging across the Middle East, the markets have already been pushing up prices, particularly for oil, in fear of an energy crisis, and the increased demand on the region that Japan’s predicament may spur could make the problem even more acute. Due to the shortfall in Libyan supply and worries about Saudi Arabia’s stability, prices continue to rise. Today Brent crude spot prices increased to $113.99 per barrel, and LNG futures for April 2015 delivery rose $0.22 per MMBtu on the week to $6.08 according to NYMEX.

If Japan does make up its shortfall with LNG, the UK would bear the brunt of this shift in supplies, as LNG accounts for almost 33 per cent of winter demand, and contracts for next year have risen between 10 and 15 per cent on speculation of increased demand. This follows already high gas prices and a particularly cold winter that added roughly £44 to British domestic gas bills.

This chart, taken from Kiran Stacey’s Financial Times blog shows how much LNG Japan needed to make up for an energy shortfall after the 2007quake:

PFC Energy made a prediction based on these figures that, with 9.7 gigawatts of capacity lost (estimates vary, as with the Société Générale figure above), this could lead to at least a 500-600 megaton per month leap in Japanese LNG purchases. PFC believes the price for Asian spot will remain around $8-$9 MMBtu.

There are a few factors to consider in support of this conservative estimate. A global gas glut, including Qatar’s huge increase in LNG production capacity, will certainly be able to alleviate Japan’s demands. In fact, Qatar has already promised to divert more supplies there if necessary, which it would not have been able to do so easily back in 2007. Further, Japan is still able to use supplies from futures contracts at the moment to meet its energy needs, so its demand is lower than expected.

These factors explain the lack of a significant spike in demand so far, but fears driving the rise in futures prices (as opposed to the relatively stable spot prices) bode less well for the long term.