Depending upon whose opinion you solicit, plans to export natural gas in liquefied form from the United States are either a coming bonanza or an impending catastrophe. I tend to lean in the former direction. I'll endeavor here to tell you why and to indicate a couple of ways that you can benefit from a movement to the sale of LNG overseas.
First, as you undoubtedly realize, LNG occurs as a result of dropping the temperature of natural gas to a minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit, at which point it converts to liquid form and takes up approximately 1/600th the volume of its gaseous form and can be loaded aboard ships bound for locations to which pipeline transportation is impossible. During the liquefaction process -- and before the gas is lowered to approximately the same temperature that my spouse maintains in our house in winter -- a number of components and contaminants are removed from natural gas. The result is essentially 100% liquefied methane.
One and only plant
At this time, while we in the U.S. are able to receive natural gas into a number of terminals, our only processing plant for export is operated by ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP ) and lies about 60 miles from Anchorage, Alaska. The nearly 45-year-old facility liquefies gas produced in the state's North Cook Inlet for transport to Japan.
Until recently, exporting natural gas from the "lower 48" was beyond consideration, given the widespread expectation that the availability of the clean-burning hydrocarbon was dwindling in our country. With the still recent benefits from the retrieval of natural gas (and oil) from shale formations through fracking, much has changed. Given our newfound gas surplus, Cheniere Energy (NYSE: LNG ) is in the process of constructing an LNG processing plant at Sabine Pass, a Gulf of Mexico inlet on the border between Texas and Louisiana. The company's plan is to begin operations at the plant -- which will have an initial processing capacity of about 1.2 billion cubic feet per day -- in 2015.
Looking further ahead, Cheniere has filed an application to build yet another LNG export facility at Corpus Christi, Texas. And in August, ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM ) , the largest producer of natural gas in the U.S., and Qatar Petroleum, its joint venture partner in Golden Pass Products LLC, requested permission from federal authorities to add LNG processing capabilities to an existing import terminal near Port Arthur, Texas. Should the partners receive a go-ahead, they'll spend about $10 billion on the conversion process.
The biggest, coolest boat
Further, both Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE: RDS-B ) and Texas-based Excelerate Energy LP, are moving toward the development of offshore LNG processing facilities. In Shell's case, the floating plant, which is being built in South Korea, will be the world's biggest vessel, with a weight six times that of the largest aircraft carrier. The craft will be used off Australia's northwest coast.
Its operation will shield Shell from the rapidly escalating costs of onshore facilities in Australia. The huge Gorgon project, for instance, is now packing a price tag of $45 billion for its partners. Excelerate's Floating Liquefaction Storage Offloading vessel will be the first facility of its kind in the U.S. and will be located at Port Lovaca, on the Texas coast between Galveston and Corpus Christi.
Before export shipments of natural gas can occur from the United States, they'll need the blessing of the Department of Energy. Those who favor such regular shipments base their feelings in part on a belief that they can yield a number of geostrategic benefits to the U.S., especially from those with an Asia-Pacific destination.
I'm voting in the affirmative
Opponents contend that LNG exports could lead to an OPEC-like international natural gas cartel, which would consist of the likes of Russia, Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates and would be formed to compete with the U.S. They also believe that LNG exports would cause U.S. gas prices to move closer to the $15-$16 range that currently prevails in Japan.
I'm inclined to believe that a natural gas OPEC would have no more control over gas prices than the existing cartel now does for oil. Of equal importance, while U.S. prices likely would rise somewhat through a sort of arbitrage effect, the total volumes permitted for export from the U.S. could be maintained at a low enough level to moderate the arbitrage. At the same time, keeping a lid on volumes would permit a maintenance of the benefits that chemicals companies like Dow Chemical (NYSE: DOW ) are currently realizing from the increased availability of low-priced gas feedstocks.
The Foolish bottom line
Given ConocoPhillips' longtime successful LNG operation, along with the permit that Cheniere Energy has received for its Sabine Pass processing plant, it's unlikely that ExxonMobil and its partner won't receive a similar thumbs-up for their proposed Port Arthur facility. I'm therefore inclined to tout both Cheniere and Exxon to Fools with a thirst for energy investments. At the very least, I'd urge you to add both companies to My Watchlist.
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