Natural Gas Exports Can Solve U.S. Energy Glut
The slogan “Made in the U.S.A.” resonates with Americans, except when there’s too much of a given product being made, which forces down prices along with the industry. One example is natural gas, where U.S. inventories have been largely above average for the last two years.
The salvation lies in Liquefied Natural Gas, the clear, odorless liquid formed when natural gas is cooled to about minus 260 Fahrenheit. And that’s just what President Donald Trump is pushing for. His administration is moving to make the U.S. the world’s leading exporter of natural gas, and LNG would be is a central component of both energy and trade policy. This makes a lot of sense.
In recent years, there was strong domestic opposition to energy exports, particularly for reasons of national security. But after years of depressed prices resulting from improved technologies that reduced extraction costs, that opposition has eased.
Proponents argue that natural gas exports can provide enhanced security to allies such as Japan; reduce European energy dependence on Russia, which has used gas exports as a political weapon; and address global climate change by replacing coal.
Trump’s policies to support oil and gas drilling by removing regulatory barriers to production, will support prices in the medium-term. Nonetheless, both domestic end-user demand and power generation demand are highly weather-sensitive, meaning a particularly cool summer or warm winter could result in severe regional surpluses, if not a national glut.
The collapse in oil prices from the summer of 2014 led to plummeting drilling activity. The gas rig count was down, as was the number of oil rigs and, and, as a result, the supply of associated gas. The U.S. produced less gas in 2016 than in 2015, the first time since 2005 that output fell year-on-year.
LNG has been and will continue to be a growing source of offtake from future production. The U.S. has slowly come to realize that developing a nationwide infrastructure to substitute gasoline with LNG was a pipe dream. Today’s investments are steering toward electric and self-driving vehicles as well as renewable energies. That means the best bet is on the export market, where demand for LNG is growing rapidly.
In 2016, the U.S. exported a total of 184.3 billion cubic feet of LNG, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. A tiny fraction was trucked to Canada and Mexico, and the bulk was shipped by vessel. The top five importers by volume were Chile (29.4), Mexico (27.5), China, (17.2), India (16.9) and Argentina (16.7).
Despite a glut of natural gas, demand is rising -- mainly in the power-generation sector, but also for pipeline exports to Mexico and the huge ongoing switch away from coal-fired generation to gas-for-power. Although liquefaction represents only a fraction of gas use, this demand has implications for the global LNG markets. The Henry Hub price set at the distribution center in Louisiana is expected to determine the floor price for U.S. LNG exports, and therefore the floor for natural gas prices in Europe and Asia. Europe, for one, is banking on U.S. LNG competing with Russian pipeline natural gas to keep prices low and global supplies plentiful.
Higher Henry Hub prices, which dictate natural gas spot and futures prices, would not necessarily reduce U.S. LNG exports, as contracts are already in place. Cheniere Energy, for example, has contracted significant volumes from its Sabine Pass LNG terminal to several large global players such as Shell and Centrica.
Volumes out of the Sabine Pass are expected to increase sharply this year as its two trains run at full capacity and a third train comes online. Furthermore, more LNG export terminals and trains are planned through 2020, potentially including the Jordan Cove LNG Terminal in Oregon. The Energy Department has authorized Golden Pass Products, a partnership between Exxon Mobil and Qatar Petroleum, to export domestically produced LNG from the Texas coast. If all goes according to schedule, Platts reported, these new terminals could create as much as 105 billion cubic meters of additional annual gas demand by 2020, which equates to approximately 13 percent of 2016 U.S. natural gas consumption.
The recent expansion of the Panama Canal has expedited the route to growing markets in Japan, South Korea and elsewhere in Asia, making U.S. gas more competitive. India, in particular, will be a major force. Its government plans to more than double the share of natural gas to 15 percent in light of its pledge to reduce carbon emissions as much as 35 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. According to the United Nations, India will be the world’s most populous country by 2022. India and China will both surpass 1.4 billion people -- with India slightly ahead.
This means a huge surge in energy demand. According to the 2017 BP Statistical Review of World Energy, by 2035, India’s energy consumption will grow by 4.2 percent a year, faster than all major global economies. India’s vision for a gas-based economy includes increasing LNG imports, and investing heavily in LNG infrastructure, to support its power and fertilizer sectors. Other potential markets include Taiwan and the Middle East, particularly Jordan and Pakistan.
LNG should create more opportunities in shipping with new vessels and trade flows after a depressed two years. While there had been too many ships and not enough LNG to carry, this dynamic will change. The shipping capacity should tighten and charter rates should appreciate, particularly in light of mergers and acquisitions that allowed companies to combine their fleets, such as Shell and BG in 2016.
While opposition to hydraulic fracking exists throughout the U.S. -- with outright bans in some states -- there are too many jobs at stake, on a national scale, to let the U.S. natural gas industry collapse. Furthermore, lack of natural gas would force the U.S. to turn to less clean fossil fuels, such as oil and coal, while alternative energy sources such as wind and solar will be insufficient to cover intense U.S. energy demands. Thus, exporting natural gas is today’s most practical option.
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