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Shell’s $14-billion contract for Kitimat project a sign B.C. may catch the second LNG wave

Jesse Snyder: April 27, 2018 2:19 PM EDT

The consortium behind LNG Canada named the prime contractors for its $40-billion export project on Friday, taking the development forward amid concerns that steep import tariffs on some steel components could still make the project untenable.

In a decision the consortium called a “significant milestone,” LNG Canada said U.S.-based Fluor Corp. and Japan’s JGC Corp. would lead the $14-billion construction contract for the liquefied natural gas project in Kitimat on the B.C. West Coast. Construction of the facility would employ thousands of workers and take roughly five years to complete.

The consortium, led by Royal Dutch Shell Plc, has yet to make a final investment decision on the project, but says it will come down some time this year. PetroChina Company Ltd., Korea Gas Corp. and Mitsubishi Corp. are the other partners on the project.

Shell has hinted in recent months that LNG Canada is among the top contenders for its next major capacity expansion, as the company looks to maintain its position as the world’s biggest LNG player. The company currently controls nearly 40 per cent of the global LNG market.

“We’ve got a number of build options in the portfolio,” Jessica Uhl, Shell’s chief financial officer, said in a quarterly conference call with analysts Thursday. “LNG Canada is one of the many good options that we have.”

Canada is seen as a preferred destination for LNG export facilities, due to its close proximity to Asian markets and competitive upstream natural gas production in B.C. and Alberta. But in recent years, political dust-ups, environmental opposition, high labour costs and unforeseen provincial taxes on LNG exports have all dampened Canada’s reputation for foreign investment. None of the major LNG projects proposed on the West Coast have yet to move forward.

Meanwhile, analysts are unsure whether LNG prices will rebound high enough in coming years to justify major new export facilities. A rapid expansion in LNG projects in Australia, Russia, the U.S. and elsewhere over the past 10 years introduced a flood of new supply to the market, depressing prices.

“All of those elements need to come into play,” Uhl said Thursday. “So it’s not just one variable that you need to consider when trying to think about the delivered cost to a given customer.”

A major hang-up for LNG Canada are the steep tariffs that would be placed on pre-fabricated modules used in the construction of the plant, which would come from China and South Korea. Those import duties could reach as high as 45 per cent.

In mid-2017, the Canada Border Services Agency and Canadian International Trade Tribunal imposed anti-dumping duties on steel imports from countries like Spain, South Korea and China, amid complaints by manufacturers that they were flooding the Canadian market with cheap supplies of steel.

Shell and its partners have applied to Ottawa’s finance department for a remission order, which would effectively waive any tariffs on those steel modules.

Ottawa has yet to issue the order, and analysts say it is unlikely to happen before negotiations around the North America Free Trade Agreement come to a close. The U.S. has been increasingly open to levelling import tariffs on cheap supplies of steel from China and elsewhere, and has threatened similar tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum imports.

“Finance Canada continues to carefully monitor this issue, and we are conducting normal due diligence and consultation with implicated stakeholders as we do when considering all remission requests,” Finance spokesperson Jack Aubry said in a written statement.

Patrick O’Rourke, an analyst with AltaCorp Capital based in Calgary, said the project looks increasingly likely to move ahead as Shell looks to expand its LNG presence. A so-called “second wave” in LNG demand could come in the next decade as Asian markets gradually absorb today’s oversupply, analysts say, bolstering the opportunity to build new facilities.

“They’re still very bullish on the LNG market, they’re still seeing a perceived fall in demand in the 2020 timeframe,” O’Rourke said. He gave the project a roughly 60 per cent to 75 per cent likelihood of moving ahead.

Shell’s interest in LNG comes as part of its mammoth US$53 billion acquisition of natural gas company BG Group in 2016, which pivoted the company toward natural gas. Since the deal, Shell has divested of roughly $US27 billion worth of oil assets, including its mining and refinery operations in the Canadian oilsands, which it sold to Calgary-based Canadian Natural Resources Ltd.

The naming of the key contractors for the construction of LNG Canada is a good sign that the project might move ahead, O’Rourke said, though many other questions of cost and politics still linger.

“I think it’s a positive,” he said.

Last month, B.C. premier John Horgan announced some tax breaks for would-be LNG exporters in the province, effectively reversing a specific LNG tax proposed by former premier Christy Clark. Horgan has been on trips to various Asian countries recently in a bid to gauge interest in LNG.

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