* Top gas retailer Origin now seen as key target
* Industrial users shy away as gas prices fall
* AIE still aims to start gas imports ahead of AGL
By Sonali Paul
MELBOURNE, Nov 4 (Reuters) - Plans for a Japanese-backed project to import liquefied natural gas (LNG) to Australia have hit a hurdle as the group struggles to lock in customers, including Australia’s top gas retailer, Origin Energy.
Potential buyers are holding off signing contracts after a drop in local gas prices, industry observers and sources said, leaving the A$250 million ($171 million) project well behind its initial schedule of delivering gas in late 2020.
The delay risks Australian Industrial Energy’s (AIE) aim of opening a gas terminal in Port Kembla in New South Wales state ahead of a rival project by Australia’s AGL Energy, while both projects are racing to meet a looming gas shortage.
AIE, backed by Japan’s JERA, the world’s biggest LNG buyer, trading house Marubeni Corp and Australian mining billionaire Andrew Forrest’s Squadron Energy, is one of five projects aiming to bring gas to southeast Australia.
It had hoped its Port Kembla Gas Terminal would start delivering imported gas to industrial users, such as chemicals and brick makers, in late 2020, making it the first off the rank.
As of June, the project had lined up the country’s no.3 gas retailer, EnergyAustralia, as its first customer, booked a floating storage and regasification unit and booked contractors to build wharf facilities.
However, since then it has failed to lock in deals with 12 industrial users who had expressed interest in 2018. A few of those 12, representing “a very small load”, have since dropped out altogether, Squadron Chief Executive Stuart Johnston told Reuters.
Industry observers say manufacturers don’t want to commit to AIE as a global LNG glut has spurred two gas exporters in Queensland - Royal Dutch Shell and APLNG, led by ConocoPhillips - to offer more gas into the local market, driving down prices.
“With improved gas availability on the domestic market currently and prices falling, this could delay (AIE’s) process as buyers feel more comfortable continuing to contract for domestic pipeline gas,” said Nicholas Browne, Asia gas and LNG research director at consultants Wood Mackenzie.
With manufacturers holding off, AIE is chasing Origin Energy, Australia’s biggest gas retailer, to help get the project off the ground, people familiar with the project said.
One person, who declined to be named as talks are confidential, said one sticking point was that Origin was seeking an equity stake in the project.
Origin confirmed it has been talking to AIE, among others, about gas supply but played down talk of an equity stake.
“We are not actively looking to invest in the project,” an Origin spokeswoman said.
Squadron said it would not comment on talks with potential customers. A Marubeni spokesman said AIE was talking to industrial users and energy retailers. JERA, a joint venture of Tokyo Electric Power Co and Chubu Electric Power Co , declined to comment.
AIE’s backers are no longer predicting when it will deliver first gas.
“I’m not hanging dates out there at the moment,” Johnston told Reuters.
He said the facilities could be delivering gas within 16 months of a final investment decision, and customers were lining up as they expect Port Kembla to be the first to market.
The project still needs state approval for greater throughput at the site than it originally applied for.
This would meet the needs of retailers like Origin and EnergyAustralia seeking access to more cargoes during the Australian winter, when gas demand from households soars, rather than the steady supply sought year-round by manufacturers.
AGL, meanwhile, is grappling with an extended environmental review of its Crib Point import project in Victoria, but still expects to start importing LNG by June 2022.
Further delays could see Australia’s southeast short on gas, as the market’s ageing supply source, the Gippsland Basin, is expected to go into a steeper decline from 2023.
“This is only three years away, so the longer the projects are delayed, the more security of supply risk the east coast market will be exposed to,” WoodMac’s Browne said.
($1 = 1.4620 Australian dollars)
Reporting by Sonali Paul; additional reporting by Yuka Obayashi and Aaron Sheldrick in Tokyo; editing by Richard Pullin