ARKANSAS, Sept 6 (Future Headlines)- The global natural gas market is experiencing unprecedented tension as Australia, one of the world’s major liquefied natural gas (LNG) exporters, faces the looming threat of strikes at its key gas facilities. The standoff between U.S. energy giant Chevron and unions representing workers at the Gorgon and Wheatstone projects in Western Australia has sent shockwaves through the energy sector. The potential consequences of these strikes have prompted energy analysts to closely monitor the situation, as traders fear that a prolonged halt to gas production could severely strain global supplies, particularly in Europe.

The source of this contentious issue lies in the ongoing negotiations between Chevron and the unions representing employees at the Gorgon and Wheatstone projects. At the heart of the dispute are concerns related to pay and job security. Both sides have engaged in daily talks under the mediation of the Fair Work Commission, Australia’s independent workplace relations tribunal, in an attempt to reach an agreement.

However, the situation has escalated to a point where strikes are now scheduled to commence at 6 a.m. local time on Thursday if an agreement cannot be reached. Adding to the tension, a union alliance announced plans to stage a two-week strike starting from September 14. The alliance, known as the Offshore Alliance, has expressed its dissatisfaction with Chevron’s stance, accusing the company of making “duplicitous” claims regarding the negotiations. In a Facebook post, the Offshore Alliance emphasized its intention to demonstrate that the bargaining negotiations are far from “intractable.”

In response, Chevron Australia has stated its commitment to narrowing the differences between the company and the employees and their representatives through further bargaining mediated by the Fair Work Commission. As the negotiations hang in the balance, the specter of strikes in Australia, a major LNG exporter, has already reverberated through global energy markets, particularly in Europe.

  • Impact on European gas prices

The potential for strikes in Australia has sent ripples across European gas prices, igniting concerns about the supply and demand dynamics of the natural gas market. Jacob Mandel, a senior research associate for global energy markets at Aurora Energy Research, highlights that the current global natural gas market is characterized by tightness and a lack of supply flexibility. This makes it highly susceptible to disruptions, such as strikes in Australia.

Mandel emphasizes that even minor developments related to the Australian gas facilities have led to significant fluctuations in gas prices. European gas prices, measured at the Dutch Title Transfer Facility (TTF) hub, which serves as a benchmark for natural gas trading in Europe, have experienced a notable uptick. The front-month gas price at the TTF hub recently reached 33.5 euros per megawatt hour, signaling the market’s sensitivity to the situation.

Mandel further notes that if the strikes proceed as planned, European gas prices could surpass 40 euros ($42.9) per megawatt hour. This level of volatility underscores the fragility of the natural gas market, where supply constraints can swiftly impact prices. While it is unlikely that prices will reach the record peaks observed in the past, the potential for further price increases cannot be discounted.

  • Factors affecting gas prices

To understand the dynamics at play in the European natural gas market, it is essential to consider various factors that influence prices:

– Supply Constraints: The global natural gas market faces challenges in terms of supply flexibility. Any disruption, even in a geographically distant location like Australia, can have far-reaching consequences due to the interconnected nature of energy markets.

– European Dependency: Europe’s dependence on imported natural gas, including supplies from Australia, exacerbates the impact of supply interruptions. This dependency highlights the need for diversified energy sources and increased domestic production.

– Past Price Peaks: While the market has experienced substantial price increases in the past, Mandel emphasizes that extraordinary circumstances drove those record peaks. Europe has since taken measures to mitigate such extreme price spikes, although vulnerabilities remain.

– Weather Variables: External factors, such as sudden winter storms, can further exacerbate price volatility, leading to additional increases in gas prices. Weather-related disruptions can strain the supply-demand balance.

– Market Stability: The ability of the natural gas market to remain stable amid supply concerns and potential strikes hinges on various factors, including the implementation of effective market mechanisms and regulatory measures.

  • Australian gas strikes: A source of near-term volatility

The ongoing industrial action at Chevron’s Gorgon and Wheatstone facilities has raised concerns among energy analysts, who anticipate continued near-term volatility in global gas markets until a resolution is reached. Kaushal Ramesh, head of gas and LNG analytics at Rystad Energy, emphasized that while a material impact on production is unlikely, the strikes could have significant repercussions. Ramesh cited past disputes that were ultimately resolved, suggesting that Chevron might face difficulties in prolonging the strikes if they proceed.

From a financial perspective, Ramesh noted that any monetary impact on Chevron resulting from conceding to workers’ demands is likely a fraction of the revenue lost if production were substantially affected. However, he acknowledged that these issues often take on political dimensions, and outcomes can sometimes defy economic rationale.

Nonetheless, Asian buyers, who are significant consumers of Australian LNG, have not shown excessive concern thus far. Ramesh highlighted that this winter, Japan and South Korea are expected to have an additional 6 GW of nuclear power available compared to the previous year, potentially mitigating some of the supply-side concerns.

  • Europe’s gas market sensitivity

Europe, already navigating a complex energy landscape, is particularly sensitive to disruptions in global gas markets. The continent has been working to reduce its reliance on Russian fossil fuel exports following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Recent wild price swings in energy markets have exacerbated this challenge, making European gas markets jittery.

Henning Gloystein, a director for energy, climate, and natural resources at Eurasia Group, observed that Europe’s gas markets remain nervous, as evidenced by the significant price spikes in August triggered by the threat of an LNG worker strike in distant Australia. While Europe has made progress in filling its gas storage facilities ahead of schedule, uncertainties linger.

  • Real disruptions on the horizon

Gloystein pointed out that “real disruptions” could occur this winter, including potential outages due to Norwegian winter storms or a reduction in the remaining Russian gas supplies to Europe. He also highlighted two significant risks for Europe: a stoppage of pipeline transit through Ukraine and a suspension of Russian LNG shipments.

The transit of Russian gas through Ukrainian territory is a contentious issue, with the current agreement set to expire at the end of the following year. Oleksiy Chernyshov, the CEO of Ukraine’s largest oil and gas company, Naftogaz, emphasized the complexity of this matter. He noted Ukraine’s role in servicing the transit and its impact on European Union countries that still rely on Russian gas. Chernyshov highlighted that some countries are not yet prepared to cease consumption due to winter preparations.

The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, confirmed that the gas transit agreement’s future remains uncertain, with discussions scheduled to take place in the coming months. They stressed that under the EU’s REPowerEU plan, the objective is to phase out Russian fossil fuel imports as swiftly as possible, reducing the bloc’s dependency on Russian gas.

  • Shifting European gas dependency

Geopolitical developments and supply diversification efforts have reshaped Europe’s energy landscape. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine triggered an energy crisis, prompting Europe to reevaluate its energy sources. Currently, Russian gas represents less than 10% of the EU’s pipeline imports, a significant reduction from the approximately 50% share before the crisis.

While Europe is making progress in reducing its dependency on Russian gas, vulnerabilities remain. The continent remains exposed to potential disruptions in global gas markets, whether due to strikes in Australia, extreme weather events, or geopolitical tensions involving key gas suppliers.

As discussions continue regarding the transit of Russian gas through Ukraine and Europe’s efforts to reduce Russian gas imports, the coming months will shape the trajectory of European energy security. Navigating this complex energy future requires a multifaceted approach that addresses supply vulnerabilities, promotes renewable energy sources, and ensures the stability of global energy markets. Europe’s energy resilience will be tested in the face of evolving geopolitical dynamics and the unpredictability of global energy markets.

Writing by Moe Khaled; Editing by Sarah White