Japan’s bid to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations may make it easier for it to import liquefied natural gas from the United States, a prospect that is raising the hackles of environmental groups.
Japan, the world’s largest LNG importer, said Friday that it wants to be included in the accord, which now encompasses 11 nations in Asia and the Americas. Bringing Japan into a free-trade agreement may boost companies trying to export natural gas from the U.S., according to Randy Bhatia, an analyst with Capital One Southcoast in Houston.
The Energy Department is reviewing 16 applications to build export terminals to ship supplies to countries that don’t have free-trade agreements with the U.S. Among the companies seeking to export gas are Sempra Energy of San Diego and Dominion Resources Inc. of Richmond, Virginia. Cheniere Energy Inc. has won approval for a facility that would begin exporting in 2015.
“Japan has been very clear that automatic access to LNG is one of the things they want,” Ilana Solomon, trade representative for the Sierra Club in Washington, an environmental group fighting those exports, said in an interview.
Success for Japan would mean “we’ll be paying the price here, with more fracking in our backyards, near our schools, and next to our hospitals — only to help a handful of big gas companies profit by shipping natural gas overseas.”
Incorporating Japan in the trade agreement would unite one country seeking new markets for booming supply with another nation desperate for imports to help it replace nuclear plants.
Japan is increasingly reliant on imported gas for electricity since the almost total shutdown of the nation’s nuclear reactors because of the Fukushima No. 1 plant’s triple meltdown catastrophe that started in March 2011. Japan is relying on supplies from countries such as Malaysia, Russia, Qatar, Australia and Indonesia, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The U.S. is not one of its top suppliers now.
Tokyo Electric Power Co., Chubu Electric Power Co. and trading company Sumitomo Corp. all have agreements to buy LNG, gas cooled to a liquid for shipment by tankers, from proposed export plants that have yet to win government approval.
In the U.S., booming shale-gas output has driven prices below those in much of Asia and Europe, creating an incentive for producers, including Exxon Mobil Corp., for more exports.
In Japan, imported LNG prices averaged almost $16.70 per million British thermal units, a measure of energy output, last year compared with about $2.83 per million Btu in U.S. natural-gas futures trading in New York.
“The history of world trade since the dawn of civilization is that commodities, labor and finished goods move from where it is cheap to where it is expensive,” said Walter Zimmerman, chief technical strategist at United-ICAP, a brokerage in Jersey City, New Jersey. Given the current gap between U.S. and overseas prices, “it’s going to take quite a bit of movement to equalize this.”
Gas exports to most nations with U.S. free-trade agreements are largely exempt from Energy Department clearance. Shipping supplies to all other nations requires a government review, and a finding that those overseas sales are in the public interest.
So far two nations with free-trade accords with the U.S. — Costa Rica and Israel — aren’t covered by the natural-gas exemption, according to Bill Cooper executive director of the Center for Liquefied Natural Gas in Washington. For other free-trade partners “that authorization to export the commodity is automatic,” he said.
However, outside groups such as the Sierra Club are fighting those facilities, as are members of Congress such as Rep. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat. Some U.S. manufacturers, led by Dow Chemical Co., are seeking to limit gas exports, saying increases could raise their costs and damage their competitiveness by making gas more costly in the U.S.
“In principle Dow supports free trade and would support any nation concluding a free-trade agreement with the U.S.,” George Biltz, Dow’s vice president for energy and climate change, said in an email. “In practice, we are still in year four or five of a 100-year energy advantage, and our view is that the U.S. needs to continue to exercise prudence and balance as we apply the law.”
The Trans-Pacific agreement among 11 nations, including Brunei and Peru, is being drafted as a model for future accords as President Barack Obama’s administration seeks to double the value of all American exports by the end of 2014. Negotiators held the 16th round of talks in Singapore last week and are on track for reaching an accord by the end of the year, according to the U.S. Trade Representative’s office.
An agreement would be the biggest free-trade deal for the U.S., and the first new accord under Obama. The region represents more than half of global output and more than 40 percent of world trade, according to the agency.
After Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said his nation wanted to join the accord, a statement from the U.S. trade agency welcomed the announcement, while adding that “important work remains to be done” on prior consultations.
The nations in the negotiations with the U.S. are Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam. Japan, the world’s third-largest economy, has hinted for years that it wants to join the talks.
If Japan were to become a free-trade agreement country — with natural gas-act treatment — “it would give Japan access to U.S. exports from the United States,” said Octavio Simoes, president of LNG operations at Sempra Energy.
Joining the talks doesn’t mean access to Japan will automatically be open for exporters because an accord would have to include natural gas and require congressional approval, he said. By itself, Japan entering the talks “doesn’t really do anything,” he said. The Sierra Club’s Solomon said U.S. negotiators have shown no inclination to exclude gas from any agreement.
The focus should be on having the Energy Department issue licenses to export to nonfree-trade countries, Simoes said, citing benefits shown in past studies.