The application of advanced drilling techniques such as horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing has boosted U.S. natural gas production to an all-time high. With the nation awash in relatively cheap gas, many commentators are urging federal regulators to approve more projects that would export liquefied natural gas, or LNG, to countries that don't have a free trade agreement with the United States.
So far, only a handful have received conditional approval from the Department of Energy, while only one project -- Cheniere Energy's (NYSEMKT: LNG ) Sabine Pass terminal in Louisiana -- has been given the final go-ahead to begin construction. Federal regulators are currently assessing the macroeconomic impacts of LNG exports to determine whether to approve additional projects.
With that said, let's take a closer look at some of the pros and cons of allowing LNG exports in terms of their potential impact on domestic gas prices, the U.S. consumer, the manufacturing sector, and economic growth.
Potential negative impacts of LNG exports
The main opponents of LNG exports include a diverse array of industrial gas consumers, as well as manufacturers, petrochemical producers, and other energy-intensive businesses, who argue that allowing exports would boost domestic gas prices, driving up consumers' gas bills and eroding manufacturers' competitive advantage.
Along with consumers, U.S. manufacturers and chemical producers have been major beneficiaries of cheap and plentiful shale gas, which they use both for power generation and as a feedstock. If prices were to rise meaningfully, they could delay investments in building new plants and expanding capacity. Similarly, for consumers, higher gas prices would eat into their disposable income and force them to reduce spending on other goods and services.
According to a 2012 analysis by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, expanding LNG exports could boost U.S. consumers' gas bills by 3%-9% per year over the period 2015-2035 and electricity bills by 1%-3%, assuming 6 billion to 12 billion cubic feet per day of exports. This increase in gas prices could lower GDP by as much as $500 million per year, mainly because of lower output by manufacturers and energy-intensive businesses, according to estimates cited in a 2012 discussion paper by the Hamilton Project.
The benefits: job and GDP growth
On the other hand, proponents of LNG exports argue that the potential economic benefits would easily exceed the costs of higher domestic gas prices. According to estimates cited in the Hamilton Project discussion paper, exports have the potential to support as many as 60,000 jobs along the natural gas supply chain and increase U.S. GDP by as much as $4 billion per year.
Take Cheniere's proposed LNG export facility in Corpus Christi, Texas, for instance. This massive $12 billion project alone could support thousands of high-paying jobs once completed, in addition to the 225 positions it would create to operate the facility, according to Judy Hawley, chair of the Corpus Christi Port Commission.
In total, the project, which is still awaiting DOE approval, would employ some 1,800 workers during its five-year construction period and support some 8,000 permanent jobs annually, according to estimates cited by Hawley. And that's only counting the direct employment opportunities the facility could create; the economic impact would be much greater if one includes the entire supply chain.
For instance, consider the potential impact on Chart Industries (NASDAQ: GTLS ) , which manufactures and sells equipment to convert natural gas into a liquid. According to Matthew Klaben, Chart's vice president, just one average-sized export terminal like Cheniere's Corpus Christi facility would support hundreds of jobs at Chart's facilities in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Wisconsin.
It would also support thousands of additional jobs across the country, mainly for manufacturing the various components needed for an LNG facility such as storage tanks, compressors, heat exchangers, pipes, valves, and other integral parts. Each LNG export project would therefore pump billions of dollars into the economy, Klaben added.
LNG exports: good or bad?
While both sides put forth convincing arguments, I think exports would be a net positive for the U.S. economy because of the self-limiting nature of the LNG export market, which should ensure that gas will only be exported in large quantities if it's cheap and plentiful enough to produce so that prices remain in check even with additional exports -- a key point highlighted in a recent report by NERA Economic Consulting. What do you think?
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