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Bass Strait gas decline to expose Victorian manufacturers

Bass Strait gas decline to expose Victorian manufacturers

A forecast sharp drop in gas output in the Bass Strait opens up a 25 per cent gap in local gas supply for the southern states next year and has underscored the risk of price hikes for Victorian manufacturers as they become increasingly reliant on Queensland.

The revelation of the extent of the shortfall in the country's manufacturing heartlandlooks set to intensify pressure on Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews to relax the state's blanket ban on onshore gas, which the federal government has blamed for driving up gas prices.

It comes as Origin Energy reported a new gas sale deal to supply tissue maker Kimberly-Clark in South Australia, which is understood to be well above the "benchmark prices" quoted by the competition regulator, confirming that manufacturers expecting those prices are being unrealistic.

Output from south-eastern Australia's dominant source of gas, the Gippsland Basin project (GBJV) owned by Esso and BHP Billiton, is set to plunge by 26 per cent next year, the competition regulator's latest outlook revealed.

The drop comes despite the recent start-up of Esso-BHP's $5.5 billion Kipper Tuna Turrum project and the venture's recent blind tender for gas, which the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission described as "unprecedented".

It creates a large shortfall in gas in the southern states that will need to be filled by Queensland, given the Cooper Basin output is largely committed to Gladstone's LNG projects.

'Significant gap'

On the ACCC's numbers, the Gippsland Basin venture's output falls to 244 petajoules next year, from this year's record 330PJ, due to ageing fields. It puts total southern production in 2018 at 348PJ, compared to demand of 464PJ.

"While this level of production is line with GBJV's production rates over 2011-15, this has left a significant gap in the supply needed to meet the needs of domestic users in the southern states," the watchdog noted.

Esso wouldn't confirm the figures saying only that forecast production for 2018-20 is in line with average rates in 2011-15.

"We continue to assess opportunities to bring additional supply to the domestic market with our efforts focused on both near-term and longer-term supply," an Esso spokesman said.

He noted that while the Esso-BHP venture supplies "a significant proportion" of the eastern states market, "we only hold 5 per cent of eastern Australia's high confidence gas reserves".

The impact of the production drop is exacerbated by the stalling of Santos' Narrabri coal seam gas project in NSW, and the derailing of a $800 million expansion project at the Moomba gas plant in South Australia due to the collapses in oil prices.

'Unrealistic' price expectations

That has left Queensland the only source of surplus gas for the east, with other new developments still years away from start-up. Transporting Queensland gas south to Victoria adds about $2 a gigajoule, according to pipeline owner APA Group, although Shell and Santos put the figure higher.

"Everyone knows [the Gippsland Basin production] is going down because they are running out of gas," said Garbis Simonian at NSW gas buyer Weston Energy.

"This is where Victoria is going to be in a for a shock. Some of the manufacturers are still unrealistic in their expectations on prices. It's just not going to happen."

Mr Simonian said the solution was to get the states to agree to lift drilling restrictions and to develop new sources of supply that were restricted to supplying domestic users.

The deal for Origin to supply gas to Kimberly-Clark's tissue plant in Millicent, South Australia, is thought to be more than 2PJ a year and lasts until 2019.

It is understood to be priced at less than the $10-$16/GJ cited by the ACCC as typical this year, but above the "benchmark prices" cited by the ACCC this week.

Australian Financial Review

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