Japan has made progress in its attempts to curtail soaring fuel costs since the 2011 Fukushima disaster and Washington on Friday gave it the green light to import cheap liquefied natural gas.
Since Japan is poor in natural resources, it has been longing to import U.S.-produced LNG emerging from the shale gas boom.
This is not only because the price of U.S. natural gas is around a quarter of what it is now paying for LNG imports, but also because it increases the nation’s bargaining power against other suppliers.
Japan imports LNG from Indonesia, Australia, Malaysia, and the Middle East, among other areas, and the pricing system varies depending on the source.
Japan, which can only import natural gas in liquefied form, has been purchasing the most expensive LNG in the world under long-term contracts linked to crude oil prices, which remain high.
The government has been increasingly wary about the impact of high fuel costs on the economy, particularly since the Fukushima nuclear disaster resulted in the loss of most atomic power, forcing utilities to return to thermal power generation.
LNG imports reached ¥6 trillion in 2012, compared with ¥3.5 trillion in 2010. Japan also suffered its first annual trade deficit in 31 years in 2011.
“I welcome from the bottom of my heart the U.S. approval of LNG exports,” trade minister Toshimitsu Motegi said Saturday.
The U.S. government restricts LNG exports to nations with which it does not have free-trade agreements, including Japan, examining whether each business project is consistent with public interest.
Japanese government documents showed in late April that three major projects involving Japanese companies in the U.S. mainland will provide about 15 million tons of LNG per year — nearly 20 percent of the annual import volume — under a North American pricing mechanism reflecting supply and demand for gas. The United States permitted one of the projects Friday.
It seems Japanese government officials are counting their chickens even before they hatch.
“Theoretically, we may be able to import LNG at two-thirds of the price paid now if we can buy shale gas,” an official of the Natural Resources and Energy Agency told a gathering of ruling party lawmakers last month.
Access to shale gas is also expected to help Japan squeeze a price cut from other resource-rich countries such as Russia, which is facing a decline in its share in the European market because LNG that was supposed to head to the United States from Qatar, the world’s largest LNG supplier, was redirected to Europe amid the U.S. shale gas boom.
Russia is turning to Asian countries as an attractive destination to export gas, but Russia and China have yet to reach an agreement despite years of price negotiations.
“In this kind of situation, it is possible for Japan to enjoy a relatively advantageous position (in negotiations),” the agency official said on a separate occasion.
But some experts are not as optimistic as government officials are over the prospects.
Jitsuro Terashima, president of the Japan Research Institute, said during an industry ministry panel meeting to discuss Japan’s medium- to long-term energy plan in April that he has some “doubts” over expecting “too much” from shale gas.
As LNG shipments from the United States will not start until 2017 at the earliest Terashima said U.S. gas prices could rise to about $7 per 1 million British thermal units by then from the current $4 or so.
“So if we add costs for liquefying, transportation and tolls (for LNG tankers) to pass through the Panama Canal . . . it may be a situation that poses the question of whether there is any advantage to us,” he said.
Hikaru Hiranuma, a researcher on resource and energy issues at the Tokyo Foundation, said the government appears to be lacking a resource strategy that foresees what might happen in the coming decades.
“If Japan had been involved in the development of shale gas in the United States from the 1970s, when technology development started, we may have had a chance to secure shale gas exports more smoothly than now,” he said. “But Japan at that time did not think shale gas could be economically produced.”
To avoid a similar situation for other energy sources, the researcher added that Japan should not be obsessed with shale gas alone, and should quickly start laying the groundwork to ensure access to other resources with potential to be commercialized in the United States, such as methane hydrate.
Meanwhile, the Japanese government acknowledges that there is no quick remedy to bring down the current hefty energy costs that are leading utilities to raise electricity rates across the board for households and companies.
“In the world of energy, it takes quite a long time to do even one thing because it often needs investment or requires change in (overall) structure,” another energy agency official said.