Shell makes a thing that’s bigger than the Empire State Building, and Australia may benefit ultimately

Shell put its Prelude FLNG — the four letters stand for “floating liquefied natural gas” — out of dry dock and into waters off Geoje, South Korea today. It’s the largest vessel in the world now, although it’s really more of a floating island since it can’t move by itself — which makes sense, because if you were to stand it up, it would be 1,601 feet tall, which is bigger than the Empire State Building. If you’re scoring at home, then: an Anglo-Dutch multinational company (Shell) built a massively gaudy thing (American exceptionalism!) and placed it in the waters off South Korea. The story will get deeper in a second.

Liquefied natural gas facilities allow a company to get at natural gas that’s deep in the sea; that’s apparently the next big frontier in oil and gas. Petronas, another such company, is building a FLNG facility that would be about 1,000 feet if you stood it up. Exxon and BHP are planning an even larger one than Prelude, which will anchor off Australia.

Here’s how it all works, best I can understand: the natural gas is extracted (there’s apparently a good deal in the Asia/Australia area), then cooled as a liquid (easier to store and ship), then smaller boats pull up to Prelude and take the liquid gas around the world. Prelude can apparently hold enough liquefied natural gas to fill 175 Olympic swimming pools.

The Economist wrote an article in late July calling Australia “the next Qatar” because of the natural gas resources that could be extracted from the sea there. Consider this paragraph:

If the ranking seems modest, Australia’s closeness to hungry gas markets in Asia sheds a different light. Australia’s LNG export earnings, A$12 billion ($11.1 billion) in the past fiscal year, are expected to be five times that size by 2017-18. The government’s Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics says LNG will then replace coal as Australia’s second-biggest export earner (it is fifth now), beaten only by iron ore. About A$200 billion is being poured into building seven plants to convert gas to LNG; three others are already operating.

This Exxon project off Australia — it’s called Scarborough Field — is expected to start production in 2021 or so. It would have about double the capacity of Prelude, but also double the cost; Prelude was probably finished for a total of about $12 billion, and Exxon’s project would likely cost $24 billion to completion. They’ve received the environmental nod for the project.

This entire sequence of events, which will run across the next 15-20 years or so with various construction sites in waters off Asia/Australia, is truly a game-changer for the energy industry — although probably moreso for the ever-emergent Asian market than the U.S. market. It’s still interesting to think that those waterways are going to have essentially gigantic floating islands extracting natural gas all over ’em in 20-25 years. If you want to understand how intense the energy/gas industry can be, consider this: as soon as Prelude floated (i.e. today), Shell announced it was building a newer, bigger facility as well. (Probably on the heels of Exxon’s environmental green light.)

Funny story about Shell for a second before I go back to talking about more valid things: last year, in grad school, I had the chance to apply to work there. I know there’s a lot of moral issues about Big Oil, and I understand that, but to be brutally honest, I was just trying to get paid, ya know? I ended up talking to a recruiter, and he’s all telling me “Well, you have some great experience and we look for that, so you’re a really strong candidate!” I go to apply online, and when I get to the experience page, I put in my number (around 9 years — although none in the oil industry, true) and the system tells me, “Sorry, you have too much experience.” No joke. Too much. For these roles, they wanted 3-4 or less. So I e-mail the recruiter to see if there’s a way I can circumvent the system or something. This was probably 13 months ago now; I’m still waiting for a response to that e-mail (just kidding, I’ve moved on but clearly I’m still intensely bitter).

Here are some more reads on the Prelude: 1, 2, 3, and 4. Here’s a cool thing: LNG could also be the future of aviation; it’s clean-burning and sells for a fraction of the price of traditional, oil-based airplane fuel. Natural gas is likely to be the future of the energy industry, though; that also comes with some problems. Natural gas has been slow to catch on in the auto industry, but that trend could flip in the next decade (hopefully, because while all these avenues have some kind of problem, natural gas seems like one of the cleaner options, all told). Natural gas has to do something; at current consumption levels, we might run out of traditional oil before 2050. If these massive FLNGs are the future of energy, so be it. I’m all for American excess in construction being floated off Australia if it means the planet is a bit healthier and we can still drive cars and fly planes.

Ted Bauer


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