originally appeared in The New York Times:
Only five years ago, several giant natural gas import terminals were built to satisfy the energy needs of a country hungry for fuels. But the billion-dollar terminals were obsolete even before the concrete was dry as an unexpected drilling boom in new shale fields from Pennsylvania to Texas produced a glut of cheap domestic natural gas.
Now, the same companies that had such high hopes for imports are proposing to salvage those white elephants by spending billions more to convert them into terminals to export some of the nation’s extra gas to Asia and Europe, where gas is roughly triple the American price.
Just like last time, some of the costly ventures could turn out to be poor investments.
Countries around the world are importing drilling expertise and equipment in hopes of cracking open their own gas reserves through the same techniques of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling that unleashed shale gas production in the United States. Demand for American gas — which would be shipped in a condensed form called liquefied natural gas, or L.N.G. — could easily taper off by the time the new export terminals really get going, some energy specialists say.
It will be easier to export the technology for extracting shale gas than exporting actual gas, according to the former administrator of the Energy Department’s Energy Information Administration. I know the pitch about our price differentials will justify the high costs of L.N.G. We will see. Gas by pipeline is a good deal. L.N.G.? Not so clear.
Even the terminal operators acknowledge that probably only a lucky few companies will export gas because it can cost $7 billion or more to build a terminal, and then only after a rigorous federal regulatory permitting process. The exploratory process to find a suitable site for a new terminal alone can take a year and cost $100 million, operators say, and financing can be secured only once long-term purchase agreements — 20 years or more — are reached with foreign buyers.
It’s a monumental effort to put a deal together like this, and you need well-heeled partners, according to the president of Sempra Energy, which is based in San Diego and is applying for permits to turn around a Hackberry, La., import terminal for export. There are only a handful of people who can do this kind of thing.
At least 15 proposed terminal projects have filed regulatory applications to export gas, and if all were approved, they could export more than 25 billion cubic feet a day, equivalent to more than a third of domestically consumed natural gas.
Environmental advocates say that kind of surge in demand would produce a frenzy of shale drilling dependent on hydraulic fracturing of hard rocks, an industrial method they say endangers local water supplies and pollutes the air. Dow Chemical, a big user of natural gas, and some other manufacturers express concerns that an export boom could threaten to raise natural gas prices for factories and consumers and, ultimately, kill jobs.
Opponents are already lobbying the Obama administration to reject most of the planned terminals, and protests have already occurred. Sempra, Exxon Mobil, Cheniere Energy and others have already built import terminals on the Gulf of Mexico. With docking facilities and giant gas tanks already built on land they had acquired and received permits for, they have a huge advantage over companies that have not yet built terminals. Cheniere, the only company to secure an export license, already has entered long-term purchase agreements for its L.N.G., and several other companies are only a few steps behind.
Dominion Power, which operates a nearly idle import terminal near Cove Point on Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, is also expected to proceed with a conversion to exports, since it is strategically located near the mid-Atlantic gas fields of the Marcellus Shale.
You have got to be able to change, adapt as changes take place in the world, according to the manager of the Cove Point plant.
The companies with import terminals now wanting to export won a victory in December when an Energy Department report said exports of L.N.G. could produce $30 billion a year in export earnings without driving up domestic gas prices significantly.
Many energy specialists expect the Obama administration to approve several export license applications in the next couple of years, and exports could begin as soon as 2015.
The plans for a gas export boom are based on the theory that cheap American gas will remain cheap for decades while Asian and European gas supplies remain tight and expensive. Global demand for natural gas is expected to expand for decades as nations seek a replacement for coal, nuclear energy and increasingly expensive oil, energy specialists say.
If the American terminals could be built tomorrow, they would have a perfect market opportunity. The production glut in the United States has reduced natural gas prices in this country by more than two-thirds since 2008.
Gas prices in most other places around the world are much higher because they are linked to oil, which has remained comparatively expensive. Gas prices in the United States are around $3.30 per thousand cubic feet, compared with $10 to $11 in Europe and over $15 in Asia.
But analysts say that the price spread could quickly shrink as a host of factors converge. Gas prices in the United States will face upward pressure as exports rise, electric utilities switch to gas-fired plants from coal, and companies use more natural gas in manufacturing and for fleet vehicles.
With rising U.S. gas prices, U.S. L.N.G. could be priced out of the market, according to the head of global gas research at the consultancy Wood Mackenzie. Even without L.N.G. exports, the price of gas will go up.
The indexing of Asian and European gas to oil prices is beginning to erode. At the same time, huge natural gas pipelines are being built around Asia to supply China, while new gas finds around Australia, East Africa and the eastern Mediterranean are likely to flood the markets with more L.N.G. Russia, a major global gas producer, is also moving aggressively to protect its markets.
And the cost of shipping and processing liquefied gas will cut into American suppliers’ competitiveness.
A gas analyst at PFC Energy, said if the current gas price of slightly less than $3.30 per thousand cubic feet rose to $6, by the time it gets to Asia, it’s double that price and that means there is no arbitrage. The biggest threat, over the long term, is the spread of the American shale boom overseas. The United States has a big lead; shale drilling has been slow to get started in Europe, South Africa and South America because of environmental concerns, water shortages and political obstacles.
But China, which potentially has more shale resources than the United States, is poised for development. And Poland, Britain and Argentina are moving forward with more shale drilling.
Resistance from environmental groups like the Sierra Club could help stop some export projects, especially outside the Gulf of Mexico region, which has long been comfortable with the oil and gas industry. And manufacturers like Dow Chemical are campaigning against unfettered exports to keep their costs down.
Over all, these factors will make it challenging for export projects to raise enough financing. L.N.G. terminal developers note that more than 20 import terminals proposed a decade ago were never built because of local opposition or lack of government permits and financing.
Can all these projects get financed? That’s a good question, according to the president of Shell Oil Company, which is looking at various possible L.N.G. terminal sites to invest in. The outcome of this is not likely to be unlimited L.N.G. exports.
Cheniere’s chief executive, predicted that by 2018, the country would manage to export only one billion to two billion cubic feet of gas a day, or roughly 2 percent of current domestic consumption. In 10 years, after two to four projects have received permits and have been built, he said he expected exports to grow to three billion to five billion cubic feet a day. The total global production of L.N.G. is about 40 billion cubic feet a day, and growing rapidly.
Dow Chemical’s vice president for energy and climate change, said that exports that come near other projections that would ease Dow’s concerns. That is a range that I think will maintain a competitive advantage for the United States, he said.