* Import terminal could now produce LNG for export
* Exports could begin by 2015
* Potential for four LNG production trains at Sabine (Recasts to add background, analyst comment)
NEW YORK, June 4 (Reuters) - Cheniere Energy (LNG.A) late Thursday unveiled plans to build the first liquefied natural gas export plant in the United States for 40 years, another clear sign of the market revolution caused by unconventional gas development.
In an about-face for a company that in 2008 built the biggest LNG import terminal in the United States, Cheniere now plans to produce and export LNG by 2015, as U.S. natural gas demand lags and production grows.
“We believe current market fundamentals have created an opportunity for the U.S. to offer natural gas to global markets at competitive prices,” Cheniere chief executive, Charif Souki, said in a statement on Thursday.
Cheniere estimates Sabine Pass — which would still be able to import LNG — can accommodate up to four LNG production trains with capacity to each produce 3.5 million tonnes per year of LNG.
The initial plan would be to build two trains with further expansion based on customer interest. It has already received initial interest from potential LNG buyers and producers interested in committing supply to the project.
LNG is natural gas cooled to liquid for transport overseas in specially designed tankers.
This would be the second U.S. export project, following the Kenai plant in Alaska which has exported LNG to Asia since 1969.
The United States has a string of import projects on the East and Gulf Coasts that were built with the expectation that the United States would be a major LNG importer in the coming decades.
But the recent rise of domestic unconventional gas production, including shale gas, has left the United States well supplied, pressuring gas prices and denting LNG demand.
The Kitimat project in west Canada has also changed its plans to import LNG, instead proposing an export plant.
Still, analysts were wary of the political implications of exporting domestic resources overseas.
“It was just a matter of time before someone was brave enough to take on the political battle it may entail,” NATS LNG analysts said in a note on Friday.
“While this follows the Kitimat decision to build an export facility, it strikes us as courageous. Kitimat is in Canada, and that is quite different.”
Sabine Pass was built as a traditional LNG import terminal but slow demand and low gas prices have deterred shippers from sending much LNG to Sabine Pass or the wider U.S. market over the past couple of years, denting Cheniere revenues.
Last year, Cheniere gained approval to re-export foreign-sourced LNG from Sabine Pass. This allowed it to take advantage of seasonal price swings by importing cheap gas during the summer, storing it and exporting it to higher-paying markets in winter.
The new plans go a step further, allowing Cheniere to export U.S.-sourced gas to higher-paying markets in Europe, the Middle East and Asia.
Cheniere intends to make a request to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to begin a pre-filing process by the end of June. (Reporting by Edward McAllister; Editing by Marguerita Choy)