Coal gas LNG? Bah, humbug!

THE money men have spoken. They love the idea of turning Australian coal seam methane into a profitable project exporting liquefied natural gas to Asia. Now for the technical people, Slugcatcher issues a simple challenge: prove you can do it.

At first glance the challenge seems easy enough. Methane is methane is methane and a molecule of CH4, whether from a conventional petroleum reservoir or from a coal seam, is CH4.

That, however, is where the similarity ends. The natural gas which forms the basis of export ventures such as those operated by Woodside or ConocoPhillips is found in large, and free-flowing, reservoirs. Coal gas isn't.

Yes, there is lots of it spread across the multiple coal seams found in Queensland, and other parts of Australia. But it is generally not as free-flowing as conventional natural gas, and has never before been considered as a fuel suitable for liquefaction and export.

The big difference today is the oil price. At more than $US100 a barrel, any source of heat looks good. Wood and cow dung might even re-enter the energy equation in today's "over-heated" market for energy.

The high oil price which is underpinning demand for all forms of energy has also lifted the coal price, and is flowing into the price earned by LNG exporters.

In time, people in the LNG industry are confident that a molecule of their gas will command the same price as a molecule of oil - on a heating basis.

It's the high price of oil, and booming Asian demand for energy which lies behind the invention of coal seam methane as a potential export.

That's why Santos is charging head-first into a CSM-LNG project, and why BG (the old British Gas) has whacked $13 billion on the table as its opening bid for control of Origin Energy and a chance to also join the CSM-LNG business.

But, at this point The Slug becomes a little dubious, for several reasons.

A few years ago it was the same money men, or perhaps their fathers, who got all excited about extracting the oil from shale. They failed.

Then some other money men said Queensland would soon have a magnesium metal manufacturing plant. They also failed.

The Slug has been around long enough to have seen aluminium smelters along Australia's west coast fail because the power cost was too high.

Petrochemical plants fail because the price for the end product was too low, and iron-ore pellet-making plants fail because of quality-control and energy issues.

Today, the investment world is excited about the prospect of developing a new energy export industry based on conventional cryogenic science, and a gas-gathering system the likes of which we have never seen before.

It's the gas extraction, collection and delivery system that The Slug would really like to see, because a CSM-LNG development will require a totally different approach with a spider's web of pipes extracting gas from a multitude of wells.

Technically, not a problem. The wells will be shallow, but there will be an awful lot of them, requiring a much greater degree of maintenance than conventional gas, and potentially involving a much greater level of product-delivery risk.

Put another way, a CSM-LNG project has the potential to suffer from gas delivery shortfalls, limiting production of LNG, and limiting exports.

In an oil-price climate of $US100/barrel any shortfall in gas extraction and delivery is not a major worry. But it will be if the oil price falls substantially (unlikely), or the project is loaded with too much debt (highly likely).

Coal gas is a marvellous addition to Australia's energy supply. The jury is out as to whether it will be an addition to Australia's energy exports.