The change in direction of two laden Qatari LNG vessels to avoid the Suez Canal and head to Europe round Africa briefly shocked the British NBP gas market last week but the longer voyage route is not a first, according to LNG Edge.
Qatari vessels could continue to use both the Suez and Cape of Good Hope routes, sources say, regardless of the dispute between Qatar and its neighbours which includes Egypt, the country that borders Suez.
In addition to the Zarga and the Al Mafyar, the two Q-Max vessels currently extending their journey to the UK, two recent Q-Max deliveries into South Hook also took the longer route, LNG Edge shows.
The Rasheeda berthed at South Hook on 5 June and the Umm Slal arrived on 8 May.
The Rasheeda took one month from Ras Laffan to South Hook compared to the preceding Suez route for the Bu Samra which arrived in late May was 18 days.
Suez remains the dominant route, however. Of 57 Qatari deliveries into the UK in 2016, only one went round the Cape of Good Hope.
Suez remains open to Qatari vessels and the Q-Flex Al Ghashamiya is likely to pass through Suez in the next couple of days on its way to South Hook.
Taking an LNG vessel through Suez became more expensive in 2015 when the local canal authority cut the rebate applied to 25% from 35%.
Charges have not moved since then and there have been no other changes to the process in the last week, said a shipping source in response to speculation that the fees for Qatari vessels may have been increased.
Suez charges a tiered price based on the weight of the vessel.
Q-Max vessels are the largest in the global LNG fleet, and the heaviest, and would pay the most to transit Suez.
This could be one explanation for why they are the most likely of the Qatari vessels to avoid the canal but shipping sources could not explain why Africa has only more recently become a more-often utilised route.
It could cost around $200,000 more to take a 120,000 tonne Q-Max through Suez compared to a standard 85,000 tonne TFDE vessel, according to a public Suez cost calculator.
The overall cost difference between the two routes may not be much with the cost of transiting Suez offsetting the higher charter rate and fuel costs from going round Africa. Q-Max vessels do not use boil-off gas for propulsion which makes them less efficient than some other vessels.
They predominantly head to the UK where deliveries are made on a more flexible basis than into other long-term contractual European markets which may have firmer delivery dates.
The alternative route is also unlikely to be a result of any crowding at Suez with little change in overall vessels passing through the canal year on year.
The route taken from Africa does not solely apply to Q-Max class.
The latest delivery into the French Dunkirk terminal on the smaller Q-Flex 213,000cbm Al Khuwair also went round Africa, according to LNG Edge.
Does it matter?
The reason NBP prices jumped last week was because the date of arrival into the UK of two large Qatari vessels was set back by around two weeks compared to traders’ expectations.
Providing the monthly profile of Qatari deliveries into the UK and the send out of LNG into the NBP is in line with trader expectations it makes no difference which route Qatari vessels take.
Qatari deliveries to the UK fell sharply last winter in line with larger volumes shipped to the Middle East.
The Suez Canal Authority did not respond for comment. firstname.lastname@example.org