The imminent expansion of the Caribbean and Central American market for natural gas as an alternative fuel in regional power generation has been under the microscope all this week at the "Caribbean Gas Trading and Supply" conference at the Hilton Trinidad in Port of Spain, organised by the IBC Global energy events company.
IBC is well known in Trinidad and Tobago: it has been presenting an annual energy conference in Port of Spain for the last 11 years (it's on again in October).
But a specific focus on gas trading in the Caribbean and Central America has never been attempted before and has been inspired by the strong likelihood that the emergence of this niche market presents a rare opportunity for Trinidad and Tobago, as a country, to become an exporter of gas to a group whose needs can best be defined as small and medium-sized.
Of course, my readers well know that gas from this country in the form of LNG is already sold to two of the largest Caribbean territories – Puerto Rico (by GdF-Suez or, presumably, Summer Soca Ltd, the Chinese company that took over its ten per cent share in Atlantic's train one down at Point Fortin) and the Dominican Republic (by BP Marketing).
Preparations for sending gas to Barbados by pipeline are also said to be going ahead, now that two major US investors have taken a majority share in the Eastern Caribbean Gas Pipeline Co (ECGPC), formerly completely locally owned.
In both cases, the driving force behind these sales initiatives is foreign but the importance of the emergence of much smaller markets for gas is that they are of a size (think Grenada or St Vincent or Curacao or Antigua) that can easily be handled by a Trinidad and Tobago entity with the State-owned National Gas Co (NGC) being the obvious candidate for that task.
This week's conference would, no doubt, have examined all aspects of the potential trade in detail (this feature was written before the event) and today will be topped off with a workshop on "LNG Solutions For Transportation, Storage and Re-gasification."
Jamaica's Minister of Mining, Energy and ICT, Phillip Paulwell, was due to address the conference on his country's need for a cheaper source of energy, such as LNG – though the 800,000 tonne-a-year market initially envisaged there would be outside the needs of the small and medium-sized customers we are talking about – and, of course, our own Energy and Energy Affairs Minister, Kevin Christian Ramnarine, was due to deliver the opening address, in which he was to have outlined Trinidad and Tobago's policy on gas trading.
Whether the minister would have brought us up to date on the current efforts aimed at setting the stage for this country to capture the niche Caribbean gas business, I can not say but let me take a stab at it for the benefit of my readers.
My understanding is that by July (next month) Roland Fisher, the chief executive officer (CEO) of Luxembourg-registered Gasfin Development SA, whose brainchild this whole initiative for Trinidad and Tobago to grab the coming small and medium sized market happens to be, is supposed to have a plan ready for presentation to the Standing Committee on Energy on the best way this can be accomplished. The key element in all this is the reliability of the supply of the varying amounts of natural gas the different markets will need. As Rodney George vice-president, power plants for Finnish power station builder, Wartsila, which has installed most of the electricity generating facilities in the region, points out: "The utilities can not think of converting to gas, which they certainly want to do, unless they can be assured of a firm supply."
In the face of potential competition down the road from the likes of the United States, which will be developing an LNG export capability within the next four years based on its cheap shale gas and Colombia, which is seriously eyeing the Caribbean as an attractive market for gas, Trinidad and Tobago simply can't afford to wait – unless the current political authorities don't care about a domestic entity becoming involved in the gas value chain in the region, which had been a clear policy position of the former People's National Movement (PNM) government.
The majors who at present export LNG through Atlantic, such as BP, BG and Repsol, are unlikely to be keen on these modest markets, so they are there for the taking by a company such as NGC.
Fisher's proposal on behalf of Gasfin is likely to include details relating to the construction of a small, one-train LNG plant near the waterfront at La Brea of about 500,000 tonnes in size, requiring about 70 million cubic feet a day (mmcfd) initially and costing around US$400 million, (fairly inexpensive for any LNG facility these days).
Fisher's thinking, which he has been tirelessly conveying to MEEA for the last three years (which sometimes fell on deaf ears) is that a Trinidad and Tobago entity should take the lead in the project from day one.
"NGC must play a major role," he told me in a recent exclusive interview, "and not just in the liquefaction plant but also in the distribution infrastructure."
That means right down the value chain – from the conversion of gas into LNG, the pipeline infrastructure at the receiving end and the sale of gas to the power stations which need it.
Once the La Brea LNG plant is built there could, of course, be other local traders – such as private sector Trinidad and Tobago businessman, George Naime, who has set up a company called Ben Energy, to pursue the regional market. Naime, who owns the propellants company, Aerogas Processors, at Point Lisas, has been promoting the idea of Caribbean LNG trading as long as Fisher has, perhaps longer.
But he has, so far, been focussing his sights on Atlantic as the likely supplier of small and medium-sized cargoes, though that company has traditionally been wary of allowing smaller vessels to be jostling for LNG loads alongside the much bigger tankers that call in at Point Fortin almost on a daily basis.
But he has also been hedging his bets by supporting Gasfin's small plant at La Brea, just in case NGC can't offtake all 500,000 tonnes and he can market some on his own account.
David Renwick was awarded the Hummingbird Medal (Gold) in 2008 for the development of energy journalism in Trinidad and Tobago.