COLUMN-Even China may not be able to soak up all 2019's new LNG: Russell

(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.)

SINGAPORE, Feb 28 (Reuters) - Not even China's voracious appetite for liquefied natural gas may be enough to absorb the additional supplies hitting the market this year, with the price of the super-chilled fuel potentially a casualty.

While China's LNG imports got off to a rollicking start in 2019, it's unlikely that will match the 41-percent growth experienced in 2018.

Imports were 6.58 million tonnes in January, a record-high and up 27.8 percent from the same month in 2018, according to customs data released on Feb. 23.

But the sharp rise in January imports is likely to unwind in coming months as much of the LNG is being used in coal-to-natural gas switching projects that run out of steam as the northern winter ends.

Some 3 million Chinese homes were switching from coal heating to natural gas this winter, boosting demand for LNG. However, this demand drops sharply after the winter heating period ends on March 15.

China will likely increase its LNG demand by about 8 million tonnes in 2019, Nicholas Browne, director of Asia gas and LNG at consultants Wood Mackenzie, told the LNGgc Asia conference in Singapore this week.

While other analysts at the event were somewhat more optimistic about the prospect for increased demand from China, none were forecasting that the 15.7 million tonne jump seen in 2018 from 2017 would be repeated.

The problem for the LNG market is that it's likely that more than 30 million tonnes of additional LNG supply will be available in 2019.

Poten & Partners head of business intelligence Jason Feer told the LNGgc Asia event that his company expected 33 million tonnes of new supply in 2019, but only 16 million tonnes of extra demand.

Wood Mackenzie's Browne said a total of about 70 million tonnes of new LNG would reach the market this year and next, driven by the full ramp-up of the last of the eight new Australian plants and by the start of new U.S. projects, including Kinder Morgan's Elba Island and Sempra's Cameron venture.

LONG-TERM GOOD, SHORT-TERM BAD

While the demand outlook over the next few years suggests that the new LNG supply will eventually be absorbed, the problem for the industry is 2019, and possibly part of 2020.

While there is some potential for India and other emerging buyers in Asia to take more of the fuel, the outlook for traditional big buyers Japan and South Korea is more muted.

Increasing nuclear generation in Japan is likely to result in lower LNG imports, although it will keep its status as the top buyer for several years yet.

Energy policy in South Korea is now heavily tilted toward renewables, and the country has already lost second spot among LNG importers to a surging China.

Overall, it seems unlikely that Asia will be able to absorb all the new LNG capacity coming to the market this year.

It's possible that demand could be boosted if prices weaken further, but there are also limitations to how much extra the major importers would want to buy, especially in the weak demand periods between the winter and summer peaks.

The spot price of LNG in Asia <LNG-AS> has dropped to $6.20 per million British thermal units (mmBtu), the lowest in 17 months and down 47 percent from the 2018 peak of $11.60 in June.

If low prices fail to spark a significant uptick in Asian demand, it makes it likely that cargoes will have to be diverted to Europe, especially those from major exporters Qatar and the United States.

In Europe, LNG can displace Russian pipeline gas, if the price is right, and it may just be getting low enough.

Russia's Gazprom expects to receive the equivalent of about $6.40 per mmBtu for piped natural gas to Europe in 2019.

This means that U.S. and Qatari producers are just as likely to ship to Europe as to Asia, especially if Gazprom chooses not to compete on price and rather gives up market share, most likely taking the view that the LNG oversupply is a temporary phenomenon.

(Editing by Joseph Radford)