On July 25, President Donald Trump met Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president, to diffuse an escalating trade war. They agreed to work towards zero tariffs, zero non-tariff barriers, and zero subsidies.
President Juncker also agreed to buy more liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the United States. President Trump explained: “The European Union wants to import more liquefied natural gas—LNG—from the United States, and they’re going to be a very, very big buyer. We’re going to make it much easier for them, but they’re going to be a massive buyer of LNG, so they’ll be able to diversify their energy supply, which they want very much to do. And we have plenty of it.”
President Juncker was more measured in his comments; in a speech at CSIS after the meeting, he said: “We are ready to invest in infrastructure and new terminals which could welcome imports of LNG from the United States and elsewhere, but mainly from the United States–if the conditions were right and [the] price is competitive.” This piece explores questions related to that LNG announcement, the gas trading relationship between the United States and Europe, and whether the agreement will have a major impact.
Before exploring whether this agreement is significant, a few observations are worth making. Europe mostly imports piped gas from Russia, Norway, and Algeria. LNG is a secondary source, accounting for 12 percent of European gas demand in 2017, although it is significant in some markets (e.g., Spain). Europe has a long-standing goal to diversify its gas supplies, and the European Commission financially supports projects that might do so.
The United States is an emerging LNG supplier, accounting for four percent of global LNG exports in 2017. The country will become the third largest LNG producer in the early 2020s (after Australia and Qatar). There are also dozens of proposed export facilities across the United States, which could turn the United States into the largest LNG producer in the late 2020s. These projects await environmental approvals, investors, and buyers for their gas in order to proceed.
The United States supplied four percent of Europe’s LNG in 2017 (or 0.5 percent of Europe’s total gas demand), ranking behind Qatar, Algeria, Nigeria, Norway, and Peru. For comparison’s sake, Russia exported around 6,700 billion cubic feet (bcf) of total gas to Europe, while the United States exported less than 100 bcf. Even in individual countries that heralded the receipt of cargoes from the United States, US LNG had a small market share.
Around 14 percent of US LNG exports went to Europe in 2017. Mexico, Korea, and China each imported more US LNG than all of Europe combined. This number is in-line with Europe’s global market share in LNG (16 percent of imports in 2017). US LNG projects were primarily developed to supply Asia anyway, not Europe.
Europe can import more LNG using existing infrastructure. In 2017, the utilization rate for import terminals in Europe was 29 percent, and it ranged from 6 percent to nearly 100 percent for some facilities.
Despite this low utilization rate, there are many new facilities proposed in Europe—some in countries that already import LNG and some not. If all these projects were built, Europe’s LNG import capacity would grow by 50 percent (not all projects will be constructed, of course). These projects await permits and a secure base of customers that commit to use the facility over time.
Europe’s LNG imports peaked in 2010, despite a recent growth in import capacity. From 2007 to 2017, LNG imports into Europe rose by 15 percent even though Europe’s LNG import capacity more than doubled. Capacity is necessary for imports but does not guarantee them.
Will the agreement make closer gas trade more likely?
In the days after the announcement, it has become clear that nothing new or specific was agreed to. The European Commission does not purchase LNG, and President Trump does not sell it. Both, however, can support this trade in other ways. Europe has long supported infrastructure projects financially, including LNG import terminals that can diversify Europe’s gas supplies. The commission has effectively pledged to continue that policy. The Trump administration’s LNG agenda has been focused on expediting permits for export terminals and this will continue. Other US LNG export promoters have proposed to treat allies in Europe in a preferential way when it comes to LNG exports, but the administration has not indicated it will do this yet. In short, there are undercurrents supporting a closer trading partnership, but nothing in this agreement either advances or materially changes the basic elements of the relationship as it existed before the meeting.
Will US LNG lower the trade deficit with Europe?
The United States had a $151 billion goods deficit with the EU in 2017 (it also ran a small surplus, $328 million, with Turkey, which is usually included in Europe in gas analysis). US exports to the EU were $282 billion in 2017, and LNG accounted for $477 million. As explained in a previous brief, US LNG exports could generate between $15 and $22 billion in export earnings once all projects now under construction are finished. If we assume Europe imported 14 percent of all US LNG, as it did in 2017, the trade impact from US LNG to Europe would be small ($2.1 to $3.1 billion). Even if Europe imported more US LNG, the impact on the bilateral balance would remain small (and LNG diverted to Europe would do less to lower other bilateral trade deficits—like the ones with Mexico or China—since tariffs levied on US LNG might lead it to be sent elsewhere).
Will Europe import more US LNG?
LNG imports into Europe are a function of demand, of European gas production, and of whether LNG is competitive relative to other sources. Even if Europe imports more LNG, that LNG may not come from the United States because US LNG might be more profitably sold elsewhere or because other LNG suppliers are more attractive to European buyers. Importantly, US LNG could displace other LNG, so the mere fact that Europe is importing more US LNG does not tell us much about European energy security or anything else. Without knowing why the LNG is flowing, and at what prices, we cannot infer much about whether this is good for Europe or the United States (or bad for Russia for that matter).
Should the United States try to push more LNG into Europe?
There is a long-standing policy assumption in Washington that US LNG sent to Europe will bring both trade as well as geopolitical benefits. This argument is premised on the idea that Europe is too dependent on Russian gas, and that this dependence weakens Europe geopolitically. Diversification, therefore, will help mute whatever advantages Russia extracts from selling gas to Europe. If US LNG can accelerate that diversification agenda, even better because of the economic gains that accrue to the United States.
That argument has some merit, but with two important qualifications. Market share is a poor gauge for energy security or the geopolitical side-effects of an energy relationship. Competition and resilience are more important—meaning whether the gas is exchanged on market terms and whether a country has sufficient infrastructure to cope with a disruption in gas supplies. Similarly, US LNG might flow to Europe, Asia, or Latin America depending on market conditions at any given point; without context, it is hard to say for sure that more US LNG going to Europe is “good” in a broad sense. The reverse is also true: US LNG might reach Europe in limited quantities, but its latent presence can have an impact. These broader considerations are important to keep in mind.
The second qualifier is about tactics. The United States has long supported efforts to diversify Europe’s gas supplies. From time to time, those efforts have clashed with the interests of some European countries, especially when the United States has used sanctions to block projects that European companies are involved in. When that happens, energy has become a source of friction in the transatlantic alliance. Today is one of those moments, with strong support in Congress to block the proposed Nord Stream 2 pipeline between Russia and Germany. Since the United States is simultaneously trying to sell LNG to Europe, those two actions are linked in the minds of many Europeans, who see the United States advancing narrow commercial interests rather than broader geopolitical interests through that policy. That can hurt an alliance that has other important friction points as well.
In short, whether US LNG goes to Europe is less important than other considerations. For the United States, the key questions are: Is US LNG competitive in the world market? Will companies want to invest here? And will buyers see the United States as an attractive source for gas, rather than a source that is too expensive or too politically prickly? For Europe, the question is: Is there sufficient infrastructure and a well-functioning market where gas can be sourced at the lowest possible cost? That is the conversation to have, not how much US LNG might show up in Europe in one day or the next.