Gas producers continue to bleed as prices remain low: Icra

Close up aerial photo of a large oil rig.

Natural gas production remains a loss-making proposition for most fields for the Indian upstream producers as government-dictated gas price remains at its lowest level, according to Icra.

The domestic gas price notified at $ 1.79 per million British thermal unit (Btu) for the six months beginning April 1 remains the lowest since the institution of the modified Rangarajan formula.

Additionally, the ceiling on price for gas produced from deep water, ultra deepwater, high temperature and high-pressure fields has also been announced at $ 3.62 per mm Btu for April-September 2021-22 which is 10.8 per cent lower than the price ceiling of $ 4.06 for October-March 2020-21 which would dampen the development of such projects.

“While this is unfavourable for domestic producers, it will benefit gas consumers. The consumers will also benefit in the long run from the expectations of continued supply overhang,” said Icra commenting on the gas price notified by the government earlier
this week.

As per an Icra note, at such low gas prices, gas production remains a loss-making proposition for most fields for the Indian upstream producers notwithstanding some decline in oil field services and equipment costs.

Sabyasachi Majumdar, senior vice- president and group head, corporate sector ratings, Icra, said, “Going forward, the supply glut is expected to keep prices of domestic gas low in the near to medium term leading to poor returns even as domestic gas producers such as ONGC and Reliance Industries Ltd (RIL)-BP ramp up gas production significantly.” The absence of a floor and sustained low prices as has been seen in the past few years post implementation of the modified Rangarajan formula make exploration and production unviable even for benign geologies, Icra noted.

“Accordingly, low natural gas prices remain negative for the upstream sector adversely impacting revenues, profitability and cash accruals and the incumbents have petitioned the Government of India to provide a floor price for gas prices.”

Spot LNG prices had breached USD 30 per mmBtu in February 2021 due to increase in oil prices, unplanned outages at export facilities in several countries, multiple cold waves, high shipping rates and delays in the
Panama canal.

Though spot prices have come down to $ 6-6.5 per mm Btu levels, low inventory levels as winter ends are set to support prices, as well as demand, as North Asia and Europe look to refill gas storage.

Icra said that, from the consumers’ perspective, the low domestic gas price is a positive. “The continuation of the low domestic gas prices would lead to a competitive cost of generation for the domestic gas-based power generation projects,” it said.

Given the cost-plus nature of the power purchase agreements tied up by the gas-based power projects, the benefit is expected to be passed on to the customers, mainly the state distribution utilities (discoms).

However, the extent of the benefit would be limited for the discoms, given the subdued utilisation of the gas-based power plants in the country with annual average plant load factor (PLF) of 22-25 per cent for the gas-based capacity at all-India level, amid the inadequate supply of domestic
natural gas.

During first 11 months of 2020-21, the gas supply from domestic sources remained low at 22 per cent of the allocated quantity for gas-based power generation units as per the data from Central Electricity Authority.

Moreover, with the uptick in spot LNG prices, the spot LNG consumption by gas-based power projects has reduced from the 11.85 million standard cubic meters per day in October 2020 to 2.62 mmscmd in
February 2021.

For the fertiliser sector, nearly 36 per cent of the gas requirement of the fertiliser sector is met through domestic gas while the remaining is met through R-LNG imports. Moreover, the industry is supplied gas at pooled pricing, which takes into account the weighted average of the domestic and R-LNG prices.

With no change in the domestic gas price, the pooled gas price will not witness any upward bias although term LNG prices have risen over the last couple of months with the strengthening of the crude oil prices, Icra said.

The overall pool price is expected to remain in the range of $ 9.5-10 per mmBtu for 2021-22 if the crude oil prices sustain at current levels.

As per Icra estimates, for every one dollar rise in the pooled price, the subsidy requirement for the urea sector rises by around Rs 4,500-5,000 crore.

As regards the impact on the city gas distribution (CGD) sector, ICRA pointed out that, sales volumes for CGD players have reached pre-COVID levels in fourth quarter 2020-21 supported by strong growth in CNG volumes. This has been supported by resumption in economic activity as well as the rising prices of auto-fuels which have resulted in higher preference of CNG vehicles.’ Commencement of new CNG stations in recently awarded cities is also contributing
to growth.

“Amidst all this, the continuation of low gas prices is a positive. CGD players are likely to keep prices unchanged for their CNG and domestic piped natural gas consumers,” said the rating agency. PTI