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An escalating dispute at major gas facilities in Australia could drive up European prices

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Liquefied natural gas (LNG) storage units at Grain LNG importation terminal, operated by National Grid Plc, on the Isle of Grain on August 22, 2022 in Rochester, England.
Dan Kitwood | Getty Images News | Getty Images

The looming threat of strikes at Australian natural gas facilities will keep global gas markets on tenterhooks, energy analysts told CNBC, with traders fearing that a prolonged halt to production could squeeze global supplies and send European prices higher.

U.S. energy giant Chevron and unions representing workers at the Gorgon and Wheatstone projects in Western Australia are in daily talks this week to try to come to an agreement over pay and job security. The Fair Work Commission, Australia’s independent workplace relations tribunal, is mediating talks between both sides.

If a deal cannot be agreed, the strikes are scheduled to begin from 6 a.m. local time Thursday. The long-running dispute escalated even further on Tuesday as a union alliance announced plans to strike for two weeks from Sept. 14.

“In response to Chevron’s [duplicitous] claim that our EBA negotiations are ‘intractable’, the Offshore Alliance is escalating Protected Industrial Action to [demonstrate] that our bargaining negotiations are far from ‘intractable,'” the Offshore Alliance said in a Facebook post.

“Offshore Alliance members are yet to exercise their lawful workplace rights to take Protected Industrial Action and our bargaining claims will look more and more reasonable as Chevron’s Gorgon and Wheatstone LNG exports dry up.”

In response, a Chevron Australia spokesperson told CNBC, “We’re looking to narrow points of difference with Gorgon and Wheatstone downstream employees and their representatives through further bargaining mediated by the Fair Work Commission.”

There is so little flexibility in the market that the slightest provocation will cause large changes to the prices.
Jacob Mandel
Senior research associate for global energy markets at Aurora Energy Research

Fears of strike in Australia, one of the world’s biggest exporters of liquified natural gas (LNG), have recently pushed up European gas prices — and analysts expect near-term volatility to persist.

Jacob Mandel, senior research associate for global energy markets at U.K.-based consultancy Aurora Energy Research, said the global natural gas market was currently “very tight” and “very little supply flexibility” means that strike action in Australia could send European gas prices higher.

“Prices have moved quite significantly on basically little bits of news on what’s happened to these two facilities because there is so little flexibility in the market that the slightest provocation will cause large changes to the prices,” Mandel told CNBC via videoconference.

He said that European gas prices could climb to above 40 euros ($42.9) per megawatt hour if the strikes go ahead as planned. The front-month gas price at the Dutch Title Transfer Facility (TTF) hub, a European benchmark for natural gas trading, traded at 33.5 euros on Tuesday.

The TTF contract rose sharply to around 43 euros last month. TTF prices have since pared gains, however, and remain well below last summer’s extraordinary spike to more than 300 euros.

“I think it is extremely unlikely prices will go anywhere near where they were last September, where they hit these massive record peaks,” Mandel said. “Prices reached those peaks under extraordinary circumstances, which in theory could have been replicated. However, in Europe, we’ve taken many steps that could keep prices from reaching such a high.”

“It doesn’t mean that prices could increase above this 40 per megawatt hour level and if something else happens — a sudden winter storm, or something like this — certainly this can push [prices] higher,” he added.

Kaushal Ramesh, head of gas and LNG analytics at research firm Rystad Energy, said looming industrial action at Chevron’s Gorgon and Wheatstone facilities suggested near-term volatility could continue until a resolution is reached.

“We still don’t think there will be a material impact on production,” Ramesh said, citing the resolution of other similar disputes. He noted that it may become difficult for Chevron to prolong the strikes if they do go ahead.

“Whatever monetary impact there may be to Chevron from giving in to the workers’ demands is likely a fraction of lost revenue if production were to be substantially impacted,” Ramesh told CNBC via email.

“Thus, these are political developments, and things can get irrational, but so far, Asian buyers have not been too concerned. This winter, Japan and Korea will have an additional 6 GW of nuclear power available compared to the previous year.”

Another ‘big question mark’ for Europe

Wild price swings in energy markets in recent weeks come as the euro zone continues to wean itself off Russian fossil fuel exports following the Kremlin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Last month, the EU hit its target of filling gas storage facilities to 90% of capacity roughly two-and-a-half months ahead of schedule, bolstering hopes the bloc has secured enough fuel supplies to keep homes warm during winter. Nonetheless, the region’s gas market remains sensitive.

“Europe’s gas markets remain nervous, as seen in the jump in prices in August at the threat of an LNG worker strike in faraway Australia,” said Henning Gloystein, a director for energy, climate, and natural resources at political consultancy Eurasia Group.

“Real disruptions” are possible this winter, Gloystein said, including Norwegian winter storm outages or a cut of the remaining Russia gas to Europe. He warned that a stoppage of pipeline transit via Ukraine or a suspension of Russian LNG shipments were two notable risks for Europe.

One “big question mark” adding a risk premium to costs in Europe, Mandel said, is the future for the transit of Russian gas through Ukrainian territory, which is scheduled to expire at the end of next year.

Oleksiy Chernyshov, the chief executive of Ukraine’s largest oil and gas company Naftogaz, told CNBC in mid-August that the Russian gas transit agreement “is actually quite a complex issue.”

“I just wanted to make very clear Ukraine is servicing this transit actually in favor of European Union countries that are consuming Russian gas,” Chernyshov said. “We clearly understand that some of the countries cannot immediately get rid and stop consumption because they need it for the preparation for the winter.”

A spokesperson for the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, told CNBC that the gas transit agreement is “still a long way from now” and they cannot speculate on what the situation would like in 18 months’ time. “It is also not for us to speculate nor comment on the two parties’ interest for a renewal of such contract,” they added.

The spokesperson said under the EU’s REPowerEU plan, the bloc’s objective is to “completely phase out Russian fossil fuel imports as soon as possible.” They noted that Russian gas now represents less than 10% of the EU’s pipeline imports, compared to roughly 50% before the energy crisis spurred by Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

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