Force majeure notices from Chinese LNG buyers: prelude to a renegotiation?
In early February, as the Chinese government imposed quarantines and travel restrictions on large parts of the country to stem the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19), China’s largest LNG importer, CNOOC invoked force majeure on cargoes. On 5 March 2020, PetroChina reportedly issued force majeure notices to some of its suppliers of piped gas and LNG. While the notices were prompted by logistical constraints (related to the quarantines and now plummeting demand), there is a growing concern in the industry that these notices are an attempt to renegotiate contracts.
This comment discusses force majeure clauses in LNG sale and purchase agreements (SPAs), the consequences of buyers’ force majeure and explores the potential outcomes as well as the impact of force majeure declarations on the LNG industry. It argues that even though Chinese buyers have a number of reasons to seek contractual changes, they are unlikely to blatantly breach contracts in a way that would put supply security at risk. Such force majeure claims may, however, start a conversation about future revisions to contractual terms, even though sellers would at best agree to add more flexibility clauses and will resist outright price revisions. Over the coming years, the pressure from the Chinese government and buyers to move to more flexible prices will undoubtedly increase, but given uncertainty around domestic price reforms, any concrete steps toward renegotiation will likely wait until China has established some form of domestic pricing reference.