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China's threat to slap tariffs on U.S. natural gas exports is injecting uncertainty into a construction boom for the multibillion dollar facilities that ship American shale gas around the world.
By the end of next year, six facilities in the United States are expected to be exporting liquefied natural gas. During that same period, several companies are slated to decide whether they'll move forward with another wave of American LNG export terminals.
Many of those projects are looking to line up buyers in China, which is poised to surpass Japan as the world's largest consumer of LNG, a form of natural gas super-chilled to its liquid form for export by sea.
But Beijing cast doubt on the prospect of signing deals with the developers last week when it threatened to slap a 25-percent tariff on U.S. goods including LNG, firing back as the Trump administration mulled hiking tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods.
To be sure, tariffs would have to remain in place for months or years to spoil the dealmaking, according to analysts. But the threat comes at a time when industry watchers say some of the terminals are already at risk of being shelved because there's too little capital available to finance so many projects.
"Even ignoring the politics with China, there are too many of these early stage projects," said Pavel Molchanov, energy analyst at Raymond James. "The vast majority of them will never get built, no matter what happens with China, because the scale of the demand is disconnected from the excessive, absurd number of early-stage players that want to build an LNG plant."
The U.S. projects chasing capital include a slate of brand new terminals, most of which would be built on the U.S. Gulf Coast.
It also encompasses expansions of first-wave terminals operated by LNG pioneer Cheniere Energy, which signed the first long-term contract with a Chinese company earlier this year. At the time, Cheniere CEO Jack Fusco said the contract to sell LNG to China National Petroleum Corporation would support future expansion at its terminal in Corpus Christi, Texas.
When asked how tariffs could impact the contract, a Cheniere spokesman said the company does not comment on confidential commercial agreements.
Lining up long-term contracts is critical to securing financing to construct LNG terminals, which typically take about four years to build. The contracts show lenders that the builder has a steady source of income to pay off its debt.
The Trump administration recently made inroads into the Chinese market, which is forecast to account for more than a third of the world's growing appetite for LNG over the next five years. Last year, after meeting with U.S. officials, China gave permission to its state-owned energy giants to negotiate long-term contracts with U.S. LNG exporters.
The United States has an opportunity to gobble up much of China's growing LNG demand because Beijing has historically sought to diversify its gas supply, and American exporters currently account for a small share of the country's imports, said Hugo Brennan, Asia analyst at risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft.
Beijing can't go toe to toe with Washington on tariffs, but China can target President Donald Trump's political agenda in a bid to revive trade talks, Brennan said.
"China is targeting Trump's energy dominance agenda," he said. "They want to bring the U.S. back to the negotiating table."
Proposed LNG export terminals, source: FERC
That does not mean negotiations between U.S. LNG exporters and potential Chinese buyers are grinding to a halt. Texas LNG, which aims to open a midsize export terminal in 2023, told CNBC it continues to have "constructive discussions with Chinese investors and LNG consumers" and still expects to decide on whether to move forward with its project in the coming months.
Meanwhile, Daniel Rogers, an attorney at King & Spalding who specializes in energy infrastructure, said potential Chinese buyers negotiating deals with his LNG clients remain engaged despite the tariff threats.
Rogers cautions against placing too much emphasis on the role of Chinese contracts in assuring U.S. projects move forward. While there's huge growth potential in the Chinese market, it's still relatively young and dominated by just a handful of buyers with enough experience managing LNG imports to be considered creditworthy by banks.
"If you're a U.S. producer and you're smart, you're talking to everybody and you're not so focused on China that any tariffs would get in the way" of securing financing, he said.
Those other buyers include large utilities in Japan, South Korea and Europe with a track record of successfully managing LNG shipments, as well as big trading firms like Trafigura that purchase from U.S. terminal operators and sell the LNG to overseas buyers.
Ultimately, the Chinese tariffs would likely have a limited impact on U.S. projects, with one or two viable developments potentially getting delayed or shelved, according to Giles Farrer, research director for global gas and LNG supply at energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie. Still, that could open opportunities for new projects proposed in places like Qatar, Australia and Mozambique.
"If you look long term, we see demand for a lot of new LNG projects," he said. "But there is also quite a lot of competition. The U.S. is not the only game in town."