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Asia to lead gas demand recovery – IEA

Gas will be more resilient to the effects of Covid-19 than coal and oil but is “far from immune”, says the IEA, as it forecasts the largest-ever demand decline in 2020

Global demand for natural gas is forecast to fall by 4pc, or 150bn m³, in 2020 because of the Covid-19 pandemic and “an exceptionally mild winter”, according to the IEA’s five-year gas market forecast, released today. Three-quarters of this slump will be in the mature markets of Europe, North America, and Asia and Eurasia.

Demand is expected to bounce back in 2021 and 2022—led by policy-driven growth in China and India—but it will not be a return to business as usual, according to the IEA’s executive director, Fatih Birol. The agency expects the Covid-19 crisis to result in 75bn m³/yr of lost demand by 2025 compared with pre-pandemic forecasts.

“The Covid-19 crisis will have a lasting impact on future market development,” says Birol, “dampening growth rates and increasing uncertainties”. Even in China and India, where gas has strong policy support, the main demand growth sector is industry, so much will depend on the pace of recovery in domestic and export markets for industrial goods.

“The Covid-19 crisis will have a lasting impact on future market development” Birol, IEA

As of early June, all major gas markets have experienced a fall in demand or, in the case of China, much more sluggish growth than before. According to China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), apparent gas consumption increased by 1.6pc year-on-year in the first quarter of 2020. The progressive restart of industrial activity in March and April had a limited impact on gas use as lockdowns in other parts of the world sharply reduced demand for exported goods.

Europe has been the hardest hit region, with a 7pc year-on-year decline so far in 2020, mainly due to nationwide lockdowns in several countries. Its power generation sector accounts for half of the total demand decline.

Price challenges

In the short term, supplies struggling to find markets amid reduced demand have pressured major spot price indices to record lows, while collapsing oil prices have hit revenues from long-term oil-indexed supply contracts—although recent weeks have seen a partial oil price recovery. As spot indices continue to explore new lows, some suppliers are facing negative netbacks, says the IEA.

Over the short-to-medium term, the lower-than-expected demand will be compounded by the continuing ramp-up to plateau levels of projects in North America, Africa and Russia that have come online in the last few years. New nameplate capacity of 96bn m³/yr was added in 2019 alone. This supply-demand mismatch “cast[s] a shadow over the future investments needed to ensure the renewal of production sources and global security of supply”, says the report.

But not all gas demand uncertainties are to the downside. Low prices continue to drive fuel switching in power generation, with switching from coal to natural gas the largest single contributor to consumption growth last year, accounting for over 55bn m³/yr of additional demand. In the US, gas-fired power generation reached a new high, rising to a record share of 38pc of total generation while coal burn declined sharply, and the trend has continued into 2020.

Asian promise

China’s principal coal-to-gas switching driver has been not so much price—with access to cheap coal and no carbon price mechanism—but air quality. And commentators have speculated on whether improvements in air quality seen in many countries during the pandemic could lead to political pressure on governments to emulate China, with India a notable example.

India’s gas consumption rose by some 10pc year-on-year during the first quarter of 2020 but fell sharply after a nationwide lockdown was imposed on 25 March, according to IEA figures. Preliminary data suggests consumption was down by 25pc year-on-year in April. Small industry and compressed natural gas distribution for transport were the hardest hit sectors, while gas-fired power generation was up by 14pc—despite a 24pc fall in electricity demand—as cheaper gas imports were used to meet peak demand.

The progressive lifting of restrictions in May allowed Indian chemical plants, factories and downstream industries to restart, which should lead to a rebound in gas consumption. And, if global gas prices remain lower for longer, price-sensitive Asian markets could be particularly well-placed to up their gas use at the expense of competing fuels.

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