Gas buyers nervous of Russia cutting supply are helping solve Europe's problem of too many underused liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals, as they seek space at France's Dunkirk plant.
Adding to renewed demand is the more potent interest of major east Asian companies, shipping LNG from the booming output of their U.S. projects but fearing a saturated Asian market where they also face competition from Australian producers.
Many European import terminals faced idling because of falling deliveries, but the combination of growing uncertainty over Russian supply and the U.S. shale revolution has jolted demand for them, raising options for diversifying gas supplies.
From one side, some European energy firms are showing interest in purchasing import rights at France's under-construction Dunkirk once it becomes operational in 2015, for periods spanning one-to-two years, a commercial source at the EDF-led project told Reuters.
"The Ukraine-Russia crisis has stimulated interest in Dunkirk capacity in the short to medium term and also attracted interest in more tailored and flexible options," he said, although not for this winter as the terminal is not ready.
Russia is Europe's biggest supplier of natural gas and its pipelines through Ukraine are a political focus as Europe imposes a new round of sanctions against Moscow.
With about half of Europe's Russian gas piped through Ukraine, a disruption would cause prices to spike and in eastern Europe likely cause power and heating outages.
As a stop-gap measure, the European Union is considering banning the re-export of LNG cargoes that unload in its ports for this winter, but a more lasting solution to rising dependency on Russian gas could come from across the Atlantic.
ASIAN-U.S. LNG EXPORTERS
As the United States gears up to start exporting LNG from 2016, big Asian handlers such as Japanese trading houses Mitsui and Mitsubishi want to book mid- to long-term import rights at European ports as fallback options if demand in their home markets sours, several industry sources told Reuters.
"The Asian buyers of U.S. LNG, mostly led by the Japanese, are basically looking at European terminals as a place to dump cargoes if the shipping economics with Asia dry up," a source familiar with the talks said.
The early stage inquiries also centre around buying options to deliver, and not just booking firm capacity.
Top LNG buyer Kogas Gas Corp. of South Korea, which will handle 2.8 million tonnes per annum (mtpa) over 20-years from Cheniere's Sabine Pass export plant on Louisiana's Gulf Coast, has also approached terminals in France, the Netherlands and elsewhere to book import capacity.
Mitsui and Mitsubishi together own 8 mtpa over 20-years at the Cameron LNG project in Louisiana, which last week won U.S. regulatory clearance to begin construction and start exports in 2017.
Decisions about buying import slots in Europe are influenced by expansions of export capacity in Australia and what effect that will have on filling demand in Asia, itself facing an uncertain energy future as Japan's nuclear restart programme and China's shrinking shale gas ambitions throw up variables.
Although most U.S. LNG has been sold to companies wanting to ship it to high-paying Asian markets, the trading opportunity with top consumers Japan, South Korea and China may not be as enticing year-round once new supply from LNG export plants in Australia begin to weigh on prices from 2016.
Seasonal price slumps in Asia, especially during typical low power demand periods of April-May and September-November, may also make deliveries from U.S. east coast projects to nearby Europe more profitable during those months.
If even a chunk of Asian-owned U.S. East Coast LNG volumes landed at European ports, it could play a big role in reviving deliveries that have slumped by around a quarter each year since 2011 to 2013 due to rising competition from Asia.
Talks to sell import capacity are still at an early stage partly because the Far East players have until 2017 to settle on a strategy but also due to mismatched pricing expectations over the value of import slots, a source engaged in discussions said.
Import slots are set to rise in value from 2016 as expanded Australian exports flowing to Asia free up supplies from Atlantic Basin plants to return to European ports, trading sources said.