Perspective: Natural Gas, LNG Shrug Off Omicron, Fret About Winter Supplies

By Clyde Russell, Reuters Market Analyst

LAUNCESTON, Australia (Reuters) — In stark contrast to crude oil, natural gas appears to be largely immune to the potential impact of the new Omicron coronavirus variant, with prices in all three major regions trading more on expectations around winter supply and demand.

For Asian liquefied natural gas futures that means steady as she goes, albeit at historically high prices.

For Europe that means prices are still trending up amid low inventories, worries over pipeline supplies from Russia and forecasts for a colder-than-usual winter.

And for the United States, it means natural gas futures trending lower as milder-than-usual weather is forecast for December.

The announcement by the World Health Organization that the new Omicron variant was of concern sent crude oil futures tumbling, with global benchmark Brent dropping more than 11% on Nov. 26 to $72.72 a barrel, the ninth-largest daily drop since 1990.

That carnage wasn't replicated in natural gas markets.

New York-traded LNG futures based on the Asian benchmark JKM price dipped 3.6% from the close on Nov. 24 to the finish at $34.89 per million British thermal units (MMBtu) on Nov. 26.

There was no trade on Nov. 25 because of the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States.

The decline was reversed early this week, with the contract ending at $36.25 per MMBtu on Nov. 29, largely steady from the $36.205 on Nov. 24.

Asian spot LNG cargoes are still being sought by buyers in the main demand centers of China, Japan and South Korea, and although inventories are reported to be comfortable, utilities are keen to avoid a repeat of last winter when a cold snap left them short of supplies.

The volume of LNG delivered to the world's top three buyers, Japan, China and South Korea, climbed to 16.52 million tons in November from 15.2 million in October, and was the highest since July, according to data compiled by commodity consultants Kpler.


Natural gas for January delivery at the Dutch TTF hub, similar to Asian LNG prices, did suffer a small drop on Nov. 26, falling 5.3% from the prior close to 88.50 euros per megawatt hour (MWh).

However, the contract ended at 94.80 euros per MWh on Nov. 29, recouping all of its losses as the market judged that the threat of Omicron was still to be quantified, but the reality of tight supply and low inventories remained.

Europe is managing to secure more LNG cargoes, with Kpler saying November imports were 6.29 million tons, up from 5.96 million in October and the most since April.

But supplies from Russia are still a concern, with indications that December deliveries will match those in November and October, which will do little to build inventories as the peak winter demand approaches.

Benchmark U.S. natural gas futures actually rose on Nov. 26, climbing 7.5% to end at $5.447 per MMBtu.

However, since then they have been knocked back to end at $4.258 per MMBtu on Thursday, as weather forecasts pointed to a mild December.

With U.S. natural gas prices trading well below those in Europe and Asia, the incentive for LNG producers to ship more is strong, and indeed it appears this is happening.

U.S. LNG exports were 6.1 million tons in November, up from 5.96 million in October and the most since May, according to Kpler data.

Unlike crude oil, the three main global natural gas markets appear to be trading on supply and demand fundamentals.

The recent volatility in the paper crude market suggests that either other commodity markets are underestimating the potential impact of the Omicron variant, or that oil traders are overly concerned, or perhaps even that crude prices above $80 a barrel weren't justified by the current fundamentals.

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