Monday, March 17, 2014

The Complication of Multiple Partners for LNG Plants

Most new proposed LNG plants in the world have multiple partners as part of the project.   This clearly is necessary because of the large capital costs involved with construction of an LNG plant but it brings with it a lot more risk as well.

When a project has a single large corporation behind it there is a single clear decision making point for the the project, but as soon as there are more partners each partner becomes a decision making point for the project.  Unless all the partners agree to go ahead the project can not be green lighted.

In theory any set of partners that hold a combined majority ownership of the project can make the decision to go ahead.  The problem with this is that if one of the partners can not go ahead because they can not come up with the capital for the project the decision by the majority is moot because the money is not there to proceed.  If a minority partner says no the majority partners really have no realistic option other than to buy them out.   This increases the capital exposure of the remaining partners and may then call into question the green light decision.

Once the partnership has been created the project will effectively need unanimous support of all the partners.   This means that for a project to go ahead all the partners need to be at the same point in their decision making.   Finding "the right time" between four LNG project partners, that likely have very interests in the project, will be hard to accomplish.   The more partners there are the longer it will take for a project to get the green light to start.

Completion of the project also becomes a problem when there are multiple partners because with each additional partner there is one more chance one of them will want to pull out or delay.    Globally there is not nearly the long term experience of LNG plant developments needed to know how likely delays or abandoned projects will be.    The closest equivalent are large scale mines.  

From various large scale mine projects around the world it is clear abandonment or delay in development is the norm.  I do not know of anyone who has quantified the delays in development of mines, it is clear that in the North American context that a decade or two delay is not uncommon for the ones that do eventually get built.    In most cases new large scale mines have a lower capital development cost than LNG plants are tend to have fewer partners which means new mines should typically see shorter delays in development than LNG projects.

One of the projects proposed for BC is LNG Canada in Kitimat, a partnership of Shell, PetroChina, KOGAS and Mitsubishi.  The current capital costs of the project and pipeline is in the range of $17 billion.  For Shell the investment represents $4.25 billion in capital, which is a significant amount for them.   Given the increase in costs of similar projects elsewhere in the last few years a total cost of $25 billion is more likely raising the capital each partner would have to come up with is over $6 billion.   These are not trivial amounts for a company like Shell.

For Shell to commit to the LNG Canada it has to make more economic sense to them than other projects they are considering for development around the world.  Shell does not have access to unlimited capital for projects.   The LNG Canada team will have to compete with a dozen or more major capital projects Shell has interests in.

Shell is in many ways the easiest of the four partners in LNG Canada to read and understand how committed they are to the project.   The other three partners are not nearly as transparent.  In the case of PetroChina we have no idea at all how solvent the company is.  The long term track record for companies in countries without a free and fair legal system or a transparent and open banking system is not good, China has neither.   Trusting in Chinese state enterprises is not a long term smart idea and expecting them to be viable partners in five or ten years is unwise.

The fact that all the serious LNG proposals for BC have multiple partners means we should reduce our expectations of how many LNG plants may be constructed here and assume that the timelines will be significantly further into the future.

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