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Could extra LNG supplies help restrain winter gas prices?

Energy companies are seeing weaker demand for natural gas in Asia and Europe. Above: An LNG tanker passed under the Tobin Bridge and into the Mystic River in Chelsea.
Energy companies are seeing weaker demand for natural gas in Asia and Europe. Above: An LNG tanker passed under the Tobin Bridge and into the Mystic River in Chelsea.Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff/File 2010/Boston Globe

Changes in energy markets as far away as China could help prevent natural gas shortages and moderate heating and electricity costs in New England, analysts said.

Foreign energy companies, facing weaker demand and lower prices for liquefied natural gas in Asia and Europe, are likely to turn to the New England market and send extra shiploads to terminals near Boston. That could help prevent the price spikes that historically have occurred in the region's wholesale energy markets during periods of extended cold and high demand.

Last winter, LNG imports helped ease shortages and soften prices and contributed to lower winter electric and gas rates for the coming winter. Electric rates jumped a year ago as a result of shortages of natural gas, which is used to generate more than half of the region's electricity and to heat an increasing number of homes.

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Boston is served by four gas terminals, including one in Canada, but most have historically seen little use. Last year, 14 deliveries were made, all of them to a terminal in Everett owned by Distrigas, a unit of the French company Engie SA (formerly GDF Suez). But Nicholas Potter, an analyst for the British financial services company Barclays PLC, said an additional three to five shiploads of gas could arrive this winter, supplying the region with an extra 9 to 15 billion cubic feet of gas, or a few days' supply.

Brant Davis, vice president of commodity management at the Boston consulting firm SourceOne Inc., said falling oil prices in other markets have helped make Boston a more lucrative destination for gas. In much of the world, analysts said, natural gas prices are linked to crude oil because the two resources are often found together, and both fuels can be burned by some power plants. So with oil prices falling, LNG shippers haven't been able to get the same prices in countries like Japan and Korea that they used to get.

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Global crude prices have fallen to $48 a barrel from $96 a year ago.

In recent years, east Asian countries have gobbled the lion's share of liquefied natural gas. But Japan has begun turning its nuclear reactors back on after shutting them down following the 2011 Fukushima disaster. Meanwhile, China's economic slowdown has reduced its appetite for the fuel, just as Australian export facilities are gearing up to supply more LNG.

Several billion cubic feet of gas over the course of the winter may not seem like much in a region that consumes about 1.9 billion cubic feet a day in the winter months. But Potter, the Barclays analyst, said the additional cargoes could prevent gas and power prices from spiking on the coldest days, when the region's natural gas pipelines can't keep up with demand.

"If you see a few extra deliveries," he said, "that really limits price increases in January and February."

The shipments could lower the costs of power and natural gas and ultimately lower bills for customers. About 59 percent of Massachusetts's electricity comes from natural gas, according to the Energy Department.

State rules require utilities to pass on cost savings they realize from lower gas prices, although customers are unlikely to see an immediate difference in their bills, since utilities adjust rates every six months.

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Prices are shaping up to be lower this winter, however. In September, National Grid filed winter electricity rates that will be lower than last winter's: 22 cents per kilowatt-hour, down from 24 cents. The average customer would save about $10 a month.

Eversource, the state's other major utility, will file its rates later this fall.

Since economic conditions, supply, and demand — not to mention the weather — can defy predictions, neither energy prices nor shipments are guaranteed, noted Mollie Curran, a gas analyst at IHS, a forecasting firm. LNG ships will occasionally change course in the middle of a trip to take advantage of higher prices elsewhere.

"Mother Nature always has the final word" in the natural gas business, said Matthew Piatek, the associate director of North American natural gas at Colorado-based IHS Energy. "Things can change in a hurry."

Above: An LNG tanker at a power plant near Tokyo. Energy companies will be sending more tankers to New England this winter.
Above: An LNG tanker at a power plant near Tokyo. Energy companies will be sending more tankers to New England this winter.Issei Kato/Reuters/File 2013

Jack Newsham can be reached at jack.newsham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheNewsHam.