The nation’s new energy secretary Ernest Moniz spoke at an energy conference Monday, where he told the audience that applications for new natural gas export facilities would be decided upon by the end of the year. Gas producers want to sell their fuel overseas where it fetches a higher price. But before it gets shipped abroad, it has to be converted to its liquid form known as LNG – or liquefied natural gas. Building those facilities is expensive. The closest proposed LNG export terminal to the Marcellus Shale deposit is in Cove Point, Maryland. That could cost more than $3 billion dollars to convert from its former role as a natural gas import terminal. But domestic manufacturers and those who say U.S. security depends on keeping the fossil fuel stateside are pushing back. Environmentalists worry that exports will stimulate more production in states like Pennsylvania, where activists have been pushing to implement a drilling moratorium. StateImpact spoke to the chief economist of the American Petroleum Institute, John Felmy, about the future uses of natural gas, and the export issues.
Q: Phillips: John, one of the things that keeps popping up in the news is this issue of exporting natural gas, liquefied natural gas. What was the role and what is the role of Marcellus Shale production regarding the future of LNG Exports?
A: Felmy: Well, Marcellus Shale could play a tremendous opportunity in terms of exports, because it’s such a vast deposit. Developing it can of course be used to supply other states, as we are doing now. But there is likely to be so much of it, that exporting it at a very good price would help in terms of keeping production going.
Q: Phillips: Right now we have the price of natural gas at about $4 per million btu [British Thermal Units] here domestically. And what are we seeing oversees?
A: Felmy: Well in Europe, it’s about $12 per million BTU. But in Asia, it’s as much as $17 or $18 because of the challenges that Japan faces with the Fukushima plants.
Q: Phillips: And I know that the industry is getting a lot of push back from manufacturers who are concerned that if you start exporting natural gas the price for them is going to be too high. And what they have been saying the low price in natural gas has allowed them to come back to the US, and that they are seeing a manufacturing renaissance, because of natural gas prices being so low.
A: Felmy: I think there is enough to go around because all indications are, as the economists would say, is that the supply curve is really flat. In other words, when you have an increase in demand from exports you don’t kind of have a sharp increase in price. And if you look at the drilling data, you see that it tends to support that conclusion.
Q: Phillips: And why is that?
A: Felmy: It is because it is a huge resource, and the industry has been so creative at improving technology, such that we have gotten so much more gas from areas that we’ve never dreamed of. Where ten years ago we were talking about building all these LNG import terminals, and you had all these terminals built and so that was the consensus and everyone from Alan Greenspan on down.
Q: Phillips: The price of natural gas has gone up and down and up and down. And when you think about how much it costs to build an export facility, The Dominion proposal at Cove Point, Maryland is about $3.4 billion dollars, how do you manage that risk? It seems like a pretty risky thing.
A: Felmy: Lets let the market work. Lets not have government intervention. It’s the investors who are going to be taking the risk and things could change, but right now the U.S. is so far ahead of other countries, even though many other countries have huge deposits of shale gas, that we are going to have that opportunity for quite a while.
And so, if you look at the major competition internationally, right now it’s Australia and their costs have increased significantly. And if you look at the deposits in other areas like China, Argentina, and Russia they are large, but because of issues of rule of law, and ownership of the resource, because in most countries except for the United States, the government owns that gas. Here in the US private individuals can [own that gas]. Such factors are reasons why we are ahead and why we are likely to stay ahead.
Q: Phillips: So talk to me about the end user here, how feasible is it that we are going to be seeing cars run on natural gas?
A: Felmy: Well, only 3% of natural gas supply is being used in cars right now. It’s primarily fleets, busses, things like that. So you can expand the car fleet with natural gas, but it is very expensive. So, it’s about $8,000 to convert car, at that level of expense the car will expire before you get your money back.
But for heavy duty trucks and fleets of cabs, that is a very viable option. We are also going to see a lot of growth in electric power generation. And because of emission restrictions we are already seeing a huge shift from coal to natural gas. We’re incidentally seeing a shift from nuclear to natural gas. For example, there’s a [nuclear] plant out in California, the San Onofre, they decided not to restart. Well, the only other alternative to supply that electricity is with natural gas.