Smog-choked China swaps energy independence for cleaner air

File Photo from AP: Beijing's pollution levels have risen to severe levels, prompting China to issue its first ever "red alert" for smog in the city.

China is becoming more dependent on overseas natural gas as it seeks to wean itself off coal and avoid the toxic smog that suffocates the country every winter.

The world’s largest energy user will increase imports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) about 30 percent this year, as domestic production stagnates and the government pushes cleaner fuels in an effort to clear polluted skies, according to SCI International and North Square Blue Oak Ltd.

Imported gas, including both seaborne and pipeline supplies, may account for about 40 percent of the country’s gas use by the end of this decade, up from roughly a third last year, they said. China’s possible rising reliance on imported natural gas, along with its plans to spend $360 billion through the end of the decade on renewable energy generation, highlight the challenges facing the government of President Xi Jinping as it seeks to throttle back poisonous air that blankets the northern part of the country during winter.

Coal accounted for about two-thirds of the country’s primary energy consumption in 2015. “With domestic production stagnating and demand surging amid the government push to use more gas, China will have to rely more on overseas markets,” Tian Miao, a Beijing-based analyst at North Square Blue Oak, said by phone. “Foreign supplies are also cheaper” because production outside of China is often more efficient.

LNG purchases by the world’s third-largest buyer surged to a record last November to meet winter demand and avoid a repeat of last year’s shortages, which forced offices in Beijing to cut heating.  Total gas imports climbed almost 22 percent in the first 11 months of last year, while domestic output gained only 2.2 percent, contributing to the surge in spot prices in northeast Asia that climbed to an almost two-year high last December.

The nation is aiming to raise the share of less-polluting natural gas to 10 percent of its energy mix by 2020 from 6 percent last year, the National Development and Reform Commission, the country’s top economic planner, said last month.

The portion of gas will rise to 6.8 percent this year and the nation will “aggressively” expand its use, Nur Bekri, chairman of the National Energy Administration, said at the national energy work conference, according to a posting on the administration’s web site.

Risky air

“I’m pretty optimistic toward natural-gas consumption and imports growth in China next year,” said Peter Lee, a Singapore-based analyst at BMI Research. “We expect to see continuous regulatory support from Beijing to drive gas consumption in a bid to arrest severe air pollution that continues to plague its major cities.”

Heavy smog has forced more than 60 cities, including Beijing, to issue health alerts since the beginning of the year and even canceled or delayed hundreds of flights. Pollution was at medium or higher levels in 186 cities on January 3, according to the Ministry of Environmental Protection. The country’s LNG annual imports will increase by between 12 billion and 15 billion cubic meters—the equivalent of 8.9 million to 11.1 million tons—over the next two to three years, with the start-up of long-term contracts, according to Lee. The country’s imports in the first 11 months of last year are up 27.5 percent to 22.3 million tons.

Larger slice

“I think China will challenge Japan and South Korea” as the world’s biggest LNG buyer in the future, said Michal Meidan, an analyst with Energy Aspects Ltd. “These are no longer big LNG growth markets. Rather, their import requirements are shrinking.”

China’s LNG shipments will make up a larger slice of the import pie as pipeline projects to pump gas from Russia are delayed, Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) analyst Nannan Kou wrote in a report last week. China’s gas market will remain over-supplied through 2030, which could reduce the need to build additional pipelines in the future, according to BNEF.

Domestic natural gas output will likely grow only around 3 percent this year unless shale gas output makes remarkable improvement, said Liu Guangbin, an analyst with Shandong-based SCI International.

City gas use accounts for about 40 percent of the nation’s total demand for natural gas, while 30 percent is consumed as an industrial fuel and the rest used in the chemical and power generating sectors, China National Petroleum Corp. said in its annual research report in January 2016.