By Aaron Sheldrick and Oleg Vukmanovic
TOKYO/MILAN (Reuters) - Japan's Toshiba, struggling with a major accounting scandal, is trying to sell down a $7.4 billion commitment to U.S. liquefied natural gas (LNG), which it signed two years ago as part of a plan to sweeten sales of turbines for power plants.
A plunge in Asian gas prices means an expected U.S. export bonanza has fizzled out before it even started, and has left the giant conglomerate potentially exposed to LNG processing fees of up to $370 million a year.
Toshiba confirmed in an interview that it is looking to cut its commitment in the early years of the 20-year contract, but declined to comment on cost.
"We have to admit the competitiveness of (U.S.) LNG is getting weaker compared to JCC prices," said Akira Nakatani, a manager in Toshiba's LNG group, referring to the typical price mechanism for long-term supplies to Japan.
In recent weeks, Toshiba has held talks with oil and gas majors, utilities, trading houses and other potential LNG buyers to try to offload its commitments, according to six industry sources. Nakatani declined to comment on the names of possible buyers.
Other Asian buyers are also trying to reduce their exposure to long-term LNG import obligations, as their demand wanes along with stalling economic growth and as excess supplies become available cheaply on the spot market.
Toshiba, which is due to report an operating loss on Saturday following a $1.3 billion accounting scandal, may find it difficult to exit its commitment, say industry experts.
The issue stems from a 2013 decision to buy the right to liquefy 2.2 million tonnes of LNG annually from 2019 from the proposed Freeport LNG export plant in Texas.
The purchase of the so-called tolling agreement by an electronics conglomerate that makes everything from computers to vacuum cleaners stunned the market.
"It was like Sony buying LNG," said Tom O'Sullivan, an independent energy consultant and former investment banker with many years experience in Japan.
Toshiba's plan was to pitch LNG supplies as a sweetener to likely Asian buyers of its electricity turbines used in combined cycle gas-fired power plants, said Nakatani.
Turbines are part of Toshiba's energy and infrastructure division, which accounted for $17 billion of net sales in the last fiscal year, about 30 percent of the company's total.
However, the company has yet to sign any firm contracts to supply turbines, and is aiming to sell the rights for liquefied gas on a short-term or spot basis, at least in the early phase of the plan, he said.
Nakatani said Toshiba is in talks with potential buyers of both turbines and gas and expects to sign firm agreements later this year or next year.
The company expects to have long-term supply contracts from 2020 or 2021, he said, and remained confident of its long-term strategy.
Toshiba's tolling deal with Freeport requires it to pay liquefaction plant fees even if it does not use the facility to produce its share of LNG.
It exposes Toshiba to $7.4 billion in liquefaction charges over 20 years, according to Reuters calculations based on a tolling fee of $3.25 per million British thermal units (mmBtu). This is the midpoint of a Wood Mackenzie estimate that Freeport is charging between $3.00 and $3.50 per mmBtu.
Nakatani would not comment on the tolling fee, and Freeport declined to comment.
As potential profits from shipping U.S. gas to Asia are eroded, Japan's Kansai Electric Power Co has agreed to a swap arrangement with France's Engie to reduce shipping costs, and Osaka Gas has sold some Freeport LNG to Germany's.
"There are a number of players trying to sell out of their U.S. positions," said an industry source with knowledge of U.S. LNG resale efforts.
"Anyone who has not sold them yet will find it hard to do. U.S. LNG is out-of-the-money given recent market conditions and things are projected to get even worse over the next two years."
(Editing by Richard Pullin)