It might not have been a coincidence that as US natural gas prices fell to their lowest level in more than two years, The Oz carried a story on Friday about the West Australian Government being willing to compromise on its proposed “gas security” demands. (For the sake of the coincidence we’ll overlook that WA treasurer Eric Ripper hinted strongly in a Eureka Report interview last Monday that compromise was indeed in the air.)

Gas being down 70% from its December high, back where it was in May 2004, is one of the reasons speculators are becoming nervous about whether the commodities boom might be over.

What’s been missed is that not a single big new Australian export gas project has managed to get up while the price was soaring. The “window of opportunity” to exploit the energy bubble might not have shut, but it’s not banging in the wind any more either.

Cool heads will point out that the sort of investment needed for LNG export projects can’t be based on price spikes, even ones that last a couple of years. Solid long-term contracts with lots of trust in both buyer and seller are vital. Nonetheless, it should be a reminder that Australia hasn’t done nearly as well as we like to imagine out of the present fixation with energy demand in particular and resources in general. As the export numbers show, we’ve done well out of higher resources prices but we’ve achieved little in increasing volumes to fully exploit them.

And it’s not just us. The odds on the PNG gas pipeline to Australia seem to lengthen by the day – the rising costs colliding with alternative supply.

No wonder then that the WA government is tempering its protectionist desire to lock away 20% of gas discoveries for domestic consumption – effectively a way of guaranteeing cheap gas for the likes of Alcoa. (No prize for guessing who was lobbying hard for the policy of “energy security”.) With the fizz already fading from gas prices, there’s no reason to doubt Woodside’s claim that such a policy would simply mean proposed new projects wouldn’t happen – and the locals certainly don’t get the gas.

Where the compromise might be heading is a deal based on the well-head price of gas – and that could throw up questions about who’s making all the money between there and the stuff’s delivery to Perth consumers.

Peter Fray

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