Monday, March 21, 2011

Exporting Shale Gas

The Financial Times has two articles that should interest anyone living above the Marcellus Shale. The first one details how two energy production disasters impact the natural gas industry. The analysis is in line with what I posted over the weekend. The second piece weighs the prospects of the United States exporting its glut of shale gas:

“I don’t see a strong push to import US LNG,’’ says Paolo Dutto, associate director with Arthur D Little Energy Practice. He notes that Australia and the Middle East were among those with huge gas resources that were preparing to export LNG. “It will be very hard for the US to compete with other regions.’’

Particularly, he says, since those countries are closer to Asia, the primary import market and, therefore, cheaper for importing.

“The long-term economics don’t support it,’’ says Andy Steinhubl, Houston partner at Bain & Co.

He believes the US will start using more of its gas with a recovery in the economy, which will promote power use, and the fact that it is cheaper to build gas-fired generating capacity than coal-fired.

That does not mean gas will displace current coal-fired capacity. Even at these low rates, Mr Steinhubl says, gas prices are not low enough to take out existing coal-fired capacity.

It would take much lower gas prices to do that. Nonetheless, he says, a carbon tax would put pressure on the installed coal base. It would take a charge of $35-$50 a metric ton to make it uneconomic to run existing coal.

But Mr Souki insists that in the past 30 years the US has not increased its domestic gas consumption and even if it moves to do so, there will be more than enough gas to fuel the domestic market as well as to be exported. He notes that 33 US states are gas producers and that number might well grow.

There is a tension between a possible increase in domestic demand and the well-established global demand. Everything I'm reading points to a coupling of the United States with the global market for natural gas. Such a development would likely raise the price of natural gas in the United States, which clouds the picture of fueling power generation. Will gas remain cheap enough to displace coal?

Exporting LNG is a ways off in the future. Politics are about the here-and-now. I think the push for more natural gas power plants will win the day. Only a strong backlash against fracking a la what has besieged the nuclear industry will quell the energy boom in Pittsburgh.

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