Rising domestic demand for energy, fuelled by industrialisation and a growing population, has prompted Malaysia to take on a new role of major gas importer as it looks to augment its own extensive reserves.
The government’s decision to boost gas imports forms part of a shift in energy-related economic policy that will see Malaysia’s long-standing power subsidies phased out by 2016.
While the new pricing structure for energy has been in the pipeline for some time, it is almost sure to prove unpopular, as consumers may well bear the brunt of sharp increases passed on by producers.
Malaysia has long been finalising its plans to begin using imported gas as a driver of economic growth. In 2009, Petroliam Nasional, the state-owned oil and gas company more commonly known as Petronas, signed an agreement with Gladstone LNG of Australia to buy 2m metric tonnes of liquid natural gas (LNG) annually for a 20-year term, from 2014 onwards.
The agreement, which included an option to purchase an additional 1m tonnes, was part of Petronas’s plans to secure adequate supplies for the domestic market. Since then, Malaysia has struck similar deals with other producers, including Statoil of Norway, France’s GDF Suez and Qatargas.
Petronas is currently developing a receiving and regasification plant at the Sungai Udang Port, Melaka, which will process imported LNG. In a statement issued to Bursa Malaysia in late November, the company said that although the project is behind schedule, the facility was expected to be commissioned by the second quarter of 2013. Once fully operational, the plant will have the capacity to process 3.8m tonnes of gas annually.
On November 26, Malaysia LNG, a production subsidiary of Petronas, announced that the German engineering firm Linde Group had won a tender to design, build and deliver a new boil-off gas re-liquefaction facility that will be constructed at the Bintulu LNG complex in Sarawak, East Malaysia. The plant will have a daily capacity of processing 670,000 tonnes of gas annually and should be up and running by the end of 2014.
The shift to imported gas will signal the end of an era for Malaysian consumers who have long benefitted from the subsidies policy, which the government was able to maintain thanks to ample quantities of cheap, locally-produced stock.
The government is believed to have subsidised gas prices by approximately $6.6bn in 2011, half of which was channelled into the electricity segment. The subsidies, which formed part of a government drive to keep down electricity costs and promote industrial growth, are expected to be phased out by 2016, when gas prices should be fully deregulated.
While Malaysia is laying the foundations for gas imports, it continues to work on maximising output from its existing fields, exploring how it can use extraction enhancement technology to extend production life.
Malaysia’s gas reserves remain extensive, with its proven deposits of around 2.4tr cubic metres earning it a 13th -place global ranking for untapped holdings. Existing reserves should allow Malaysia to maintain production at its present rate of around 63bn cubic metres for years to come, although projected increases in domestic usage are likely to speed up a reduction in the life expectancy of its fields. Much of the increased demand will come from industries dependent on gas for feedstock, such as manufacturers of plastics, chemical fertilisers and other petrochemical products.
Efforts are also being channelled into identifying and developing new reserves. In November, Petronas and its partners announced a number of new finds in offshore fields, although the full extent of reserves and their quality have yet to be determined.
While new fields will help prolong the lifespan of gas production, Malaysia’s rising demand for gas is set to grow at a rate easily outstripping domestic output. Despite concerns that higher energy bills will irk consumers and could push up inflation, foreign gas looks set to play a growing role in powering Malaysia’s economy.