UPDATE 1-Japan Osaka Gas, Chubu sign deal for U.S. LNG imports
* Japan firms sign deal for 4.4 tonnes LNG imports/yr from Freeport LNG project
* Deal pending U.S. govt approval for LNG exports
* Japan stepped up LNG purchases after Fukushima crisis
TOKYO, July 31 (Reuters) - Japan's Osaka Gas Co and Chubu Electric Power Co said on Tuesday they signed a contract with Texas-based Freeport LNG Development L.P. to each import 2.2 million tonnes a year of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the U.S. mainland.
Japan is the world's biggest LNG buyer and expects to import 15 million tonnes of LNG from North America per year from as early as 2016 once the United States lifts export restrictions.
Record North American natural gas production is prompting companies to consider export plans.
The Freeport LNG project has filed for regulatory approval to export LNG, Osaka Gas said.
If the deal goes through, the Japanese firms will buy the output of one of three facilities that can chill gas to liquid form for shipping which Freeport is planning to build and which will each have an LNG output capacity of 4.4 million tonnes per annum (mtpa) by 2017, Osaka Gas said.
Stakeholders in the Freeport LNG Development are Freeport LNG Investments (20 percent), Zachry Hastings (55 percent), Dow Chemical (15 percent) and Osaka Gas (10 percent), Osaka Gas said.
Japan has increased LNG purchases by almost 18 percent to a record 83.2 million tonnes in the year ended March 31, as it tries to compensate for the idling of all but two of its 50 nuclear reactors amid public safety concerns after last year's Fukushima nuclear crisis.
Trading house Sumitomo Corp and Tokyo Gas Co Ltd signed a preliminary agreement with Dominion Resources in April, giving them the right to buy LNG produced at a 5-million-tonne-per-year gas liquefaction facility to be built by in Maryland.