Ivor Ries Most investors may not have Australian resource companies on their radar screens, but that doesn't mean that there aren't some great opportunities worth pursuing Down Under. In this exclusive interview with The Energy Report, Ivor Ries, utilities and energy analyst at E.L. & C. Baillieu Stockbroking Ltd., one of Australia's oldest securities firms, describes the challenges faced by energy-related companies in his country and how they are taking advantage of the opportunities available both at home and in the U.S., Canada and South America.
Companies Mentioned: Approach Resources Inc. - BHP Billiton Ltd. - ConocoPhillips - Devon Energy Corp. - El Paso Pipeline Partners, L.P. - EOG Resources, Inc. - Karoon Gas Australia Ltd. - Molopo Energy Ltd. - Origin Energy Ltd. - Pioneer Southwest Energy Partners, L.P. - Red Fork Energy Ltd. - Rio Tinto - Woodside Petroleum Ltd.
The Energy Report: Your firm has been in the investment business for over 120 years. Can you give us an overview of the energy markets and the challenges and opportunities that energy companies in Australia face?
Ivor Ries: Australia has historically been the quarry and energy source to emerging Asian economies. As a result, our economy is inextricably linked with the progress of China, Korea, Japan, India and the other Southeast Asian economies. Initially, we were mostly a supplier of minerals, but in recent years, the liquefied natural gas (LNG) markets have become a very large part of our economy. We have two very large LNG projects in production and a third smaller one in Darwin. Another five LNG projects are now under construction, which will more than triple Australia's LNG output over the next five or six years.
The LNG boom has its pros and cons. The investment spending is a huge boost to our economy, but it also has caused a huge shortage of contractors and manpower. The price of labor has gone through the roof in any business related to oil and gas. An unskilled laborer working on an LNG project in Australia is probably paid somewhere between two and four times as much as he or she would be elsewhere. Australia has very tight restrictions on labor coming in. At the moment, the industry is forcing the government to change that. The government recently announced it is going to reduce the visa requirements for American and Canadian oil and gas workers, so they can help plug that gap. That would be a huge relief for the industry. We have a very heavy-handed set of regulations here, and there has been a lot of media hysteria surrounding fracking, particularly in the coal-seam gas areas and a very strong campaign to have fracking stopped. Anyone running coal-seam gas or unconventional gas here has to run through a very stringent and time-consuming environmental approvals process, which probably adds two to three years to getting a project off the ground. When it comes to the cost of getting things done, everything takes longer and is more expensive than expected. That's frustrating.
TER: What's the breakdown of Australia's energy production versus its consumption of oil, gas, coal and other energy sources?
IR: The domestic market in Australia is overwhelmingly coal driven. Australia is the world's largest seaborne coal exporter, and our domestic power industry runs about 80–85% off coal and to a smaller extent off hydroelectric power and gas. Cheap coal gives us very low-cost baseload power across the entire economy. A population of only 23 million (M) people is just not enough to create a significant market for gas, and that has resulted in a terrible oversupply. Until we started shipping LNG, gas prices were incredibly low. We're just now starting to see the connection between the domestic gas price and export prices. Typically, for the last five years, the price for gas on the east coast of Australia was about $3.50 per million British thermal units (MMBtu). Now we're starting to see some longer contracts being signed at about $7–8/MMBtu.
TER: Do LNG exports offer a big potential opportunity?
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