By Harry R. Weber and Tim Loh
(Bloomberg) — Charif Souki is doubling down on liquefied natural gas.
Two months after the outspoken founder and chief executive officer of Cheniere Energy Inc. was removed from the company, Souki’s teaming up with former BG Group Plc executive Martin Houston to start an LNG company that Souki says can beat Cheniere at its own game.
Their new company, Tellurian Investments, plans to offer natural gas liquefaction and export projects along the U.S. Gulf Coast. The two are planning to develop their first plant near the Calcasieu River in Louisiana, costing between $6 billion and $8 billion, Souki said in an interview at Bloomberg’s Houston office on Tuesday. Souki plans to spend some of his own money on the project but declined to say how much. He also plans to raise capital, he said.
“This is easy compared to what we had at Cheniere,” Souki said in the interview. “I have money and we don’t have any debt.”
Souki was removed from Cheniere in December, just months before the company’s first LNG exports were scheduled to ship. Souki, ever bullish on global LNG demand, wanted Cheniere to keep building new export terminals. The company’s board — influenced by weak oil markets, the threat of a looming global LNG glut and billionaire activist investor Carl Icahn — wanted to scale back plans, focus on Cheniere’s initial projects and try to turn a profit for the first time.
Souki attended three board meetings after his ouster as CEO, waiting to see if Cheniere had any plans to continue the LNG export growth he envisioned. When he realized the company didn’t, he announced his plans.
“It became very clear they did not need my advice,” he said of the board.
Souki said he can probably cut the cost of developing the initial plant by 20 percent from what it cost Cheniere to build the first liquefaction train at its export terminal at Sabine Pass, Louisiana.
Earlier this month, Cheniere sued a company called Parallax Enterprises that it said is wholly owned by Martin Houston for defaulting on a $46 million loan that was secured by Parallax’s assets. Cheniere had lent the funds to Parallax while the two companies discussed a potential arrangement for joint development of two liquefaction plants, according to the complaint. Parallax informed Cheniere on Feb. 1 that it was “unable to satisfy current payment obligations,” according to the complaint.
Joi Lecznar, a spokeswoman for both Tellurian and Parallax, said in an e-mail that the two entities are separate companies and that Parallax can’t comment on pending litigation.
Houston joined BG in the 1980s and led the company’s LNG business. He retired in early 2014 as BG’s chief operating officer after failing to win the company’s top job.
Souki, a Beirut-raised former investment banker, started a series of trendy restaurants in Aspen and Los Angeles in the 1980s. He created Cheniere in the mid-’90s out of a former restaurant chain called All American Burger Inc. that had morphed into a Hollywood film-colorization company. Cheniere initially planned to import LNG, but Souki reversed course after the U.S. shale revolution.
Two decades later, Souki’s back in a position to be entrepreneurial.
“Martin is a free agent,” he said, “and so am I.”
© 2016 Bloomberg L.P
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