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Myra P. Saefong

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Oct. 7, 2021, 1:31 p.m. EDT

Lofty prices for natural gas may fuel a swing back to oil as a power source

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Myra P. Saefong

With the global push toward cutting carbon emissions, it’s tough to imagine a setback that would lead to a shift from a cleaner-burning fuel to oil. But that’s what may happen, with United Kingdom natural gas prices touching record highs, and U.S. prices more than double this year, and at their highest since 2008.

“The current energy crisis is a perfect storm of overlapping events that were sparked off by the Covid pandemic, and essentially boils down to a lack of stockpiling,” says Sanjeeban Sarkar, commodities editor at The Economist Intelligence Unit, or EIU.

In Europe, natural-gas prices spiked because of a slowdown in supplies, higher demand from a hotter-than-expected summer, and lower energy output from wind turbines, which raised demand for natural gas as an alternative, he says. That “all but wiped out” natural-gas stocks.

On Oct. 5, U.K. natural-gas futures jumped to a record high at 302.84 pence a therm, and U.S. natural-gas futures  /zigman2/quotes/210189548/delayed NG00 -1.25% settled at $6.31 per million British thermal units, the highest since December 2008. Prices for both benchmarks  have eased a bit  from those highs after Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Oct. 6 that his country would  boost supplies to Europe .

“You are seeing an economic incentive…to switch away from natural gas” to petroleum products such as distillates and liquid petroleum gas, says Rich Redash, head of global gas planning at S&P Global Platts Analytics. Energy-intensive industries, such as primary-metal manufacturers, may look to “flip-flop between coal and gas, or gas and various petroleum products.”

High prices already have hurt the share of natural gas in power production, says Sarkar of the EIU, which expects the share of natural gas used in electricity generation to fall by 8.3%, to 35% this year, and to 34% in 2022, as the “share of renewables rises.”

Liquefied natural gas, or LNG, and oil are substitutes for natural gas, but LNG is now expensive relative to oil, and it’s “cheaper to burn fuel oil in power plants than natural gas,” says Anas Alhajji, an independent energy export, who’s also managing partner at Energy Outlook Advisors LLC.

He points out that with power shortages around the world, “factories and people resort to private [power] generation,” which uses fuel oil and diesel, implying an uptick in petroleum product demand.

Coal, meanwhile, has also become more expensive, with prices delivered to Europe hitting a record high of $295.05 per metric ton on Oct. 5, and thermal coal shipped to northeast Asia at $156.59 per metric ton, almost $97 higher than about a year ago, as assessed by S&P Global Platts on Oct. 6.

“Spot coal prices have risen to all-time highs in Asia, as spot coal supply availability is extremely limited,” says Andre Lambine, senior analyst, European gas & power analytics at S&P Global Platts.

When it comes to coal, China has “set the pace of recent price increases,” says Reid I’Anson, senior commodity economist at data and analytics provider Kpler, pointing out that Chinese thermal coal imports were at a five-year high of 24.7 million metric tons in August.

That “did little to keep with the pace of domestic demand,” with combined thermal coal inventories across seven provinces that publish data finishing August at the lowest since early 2018, he says.

In India, elevated prices have led to a decline in thermal coal imports in recent months, says I’Anson, but storage levels have seen big declines, implying strong consumption.

“Elevated pricing for LNG, natural gas, and thermal coal will certainly incentivize switching towards petroleum liquid alternatives, such as crude or fuel oil, given attractive discounts on a [million British thermal units] basis, albeit the extent of this switching process remains an open question,” says I’Anson. “This is already happening in places like Pakistan and Bangladesh, which have recently boosted fuel oil imports at the expense of spot LNG purchases.”

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Dec. 1, 2021 2:08a

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Myra P. Saefong is on the markets team in San Francisco. She has covered the commodities sector for MarketWatch for more than 10 years. She has spent the...

Myra P. Saefong is on the markets team in San Francisco. She has covered the commodities sector for MarketWatch for more than 10 years. She has spent the bulk of her years at the company writing the daily Futures Movers and Metals Stocks columns and has been writing the weekly Commodities Corner column since 2005. Myra has been with MarketWatch since 1998 and holds a master’s degree in English literature.

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