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KARACHI: Faced with rapidly declining domestic reserves of natural gas, Pakistan is relying more heavily on imported liquefied natural gas (LNG) as a replacement fuel. But rather than simply replacing one form of gas for another, the shift to imported LNG undermines the country’s energy security and financial stability, latest report issued by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) on Pakistan says.

IEEFA estimates that Pakistan’s LNG imports could rise to more than US$32 billion by FY2030, up from nearly US$2.6 billion in FY2021, according to the report’s co-authors and energy finance analysts Haneea Isaad and Samuel Reynolds.

“LNG sourced from global markets has become 5 to 10 times more expensive than domestically produced gas in Pakistan,” says Isaad.

LNG has also been unreliable. LNG suppliers under long-term contracts with Pakistan have defaulted on at least 11 cargoes since January 2021, contributing to fuel and power shortages. Extreme LNG price volatility continues to stymie energy sector planning and expose the government to massive subsidy burdens.

“Pakistan’s vulnerability to commodity market shocks has only been increasing in the wake of the Ukraine crisis,” says Reynolds. “Coupled with the global economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, price-sensitive countries such as Pakistan may be unable to compete with wealthier buyers in Europe and Northeast Asia.”

In the report, Isaad and Reynolds examine key risks for LNG imports and provide recommendations to mitigate the financially unsustainable growth of LNG import demand in Pakistan.

DEEPER FINANCIAL HOLE: Pakistan imported 7.4 million tons of LNG in 2020, and the government expects LNG demand to grow rapidly over the next decade. There are currently at least four major LNG import terminal projects at various stages of development.

However, the high cost of LNG has shed new light on many of the pre-existing issues with the country’s gas system. These problems include final tariffs that are not reflective of gas costs, inefficient cross-subsidisation of gas tariffs, and high volumes of unaccounted for gas (UFG) that are lost in transportation through the network.

“As more LNG is injected to this faulty network, financial issues in Pakistan’s gas sector are likely to worsen significantly,” says Reynolds. “Circular debt, chronic cash flow shortages that have historically plagued Pakistan’s power sector, is now rampant in the gas sector.”

Greater reliance on imported LNG would only reinforce credit risks for investors in the country’s LNG-to-power value chain. Planned pipeline projects and terminals may also take time to materialise as geopolitical conflicts and unviable economics exacerbate stranded asset risks for LNG infrastructure.

MACROECONOMIC REPERCUSSIONS: Natural gas is used widely throughout key sectors of Pakistan’s economy, so LNG price spikes and supply insecurity can have major negative macroeconomic spillover effects.

In the power sector, LNG fuel shortages have forced 3,500 MW of power capacity to go offline since December 2021 and have contributed to nationwide load-shedding of 10-18 hours per day in recent weeks.

In January, fuel shortages caused textile mills in Punjab to close for over two weeks. As a result, exports worth US$250 million — or 20% of the entire sector’s annual revenue — were lost.

“In Pakistan’s textile sector, power generation costs can amount to roughly 30-40% of the production costs,” says Isaad. “Since the textile industry depends on gas-based power generation, rising LNG prices can grossly reduce profit margins.”

The fertiliser sector also has an entrenched dependence on natural as a fuel and feedstock, but the sector pays among the lowest gas prices despite high costs. Fertiliser accounts for 16% of national gas consumption, but only 3% of revenues of state-owned gas transmission companies.

Instead of rapidly ramping up LNG imports, Pakistan’s near-term focus can be on using existing LNG supply more efficiently by changing regulatory incentives, rationalising tariff structures, and implementing energy efficiency programmes, among other measures.

“The focus should be on the demand side of the equation, and less so on expanding supply,” says Reynolds. “The promotion of energy efficiency equipment and more cost-reflective tariff structures can incentivise more efficient use of gas to reduce import needs.”

“More coherent strategies for LNG procurement and tenders, along with maximizing the utilisation of existing LNG terminals can also help improve energy security without major new infrastructure additions,” says Isaad.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2022


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