The great debate over natural gas exports has taken a very interesting turn. President Obama, in a speech last weekend, hinted that the U.S. could be a net exporter of gas by the end of the decade. This move, it would appear, puts him on the same side as none other than ExxonMobil (XOM -0.70%).
Exxon and companies such as Dow Chemical (DOW) and Alcoa (AA) have been sparring back and forth recently over exports. The two manufacturing giants are vocally opposing unchecked LNG exportation because of the energy-intensive nature of their businesses. These heavy users of gas believe that unabated natural gas exports will cause the price of natural gas to rise dramatically.
ExxonMobil and other export advocates believe that exporting natural gas would actually be healthy for our economy. Higher gas prices would entice producers to invest in drilling projects, which would create jobs and generate more tax revenue. It's a case that was recently boosted by a study from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, which concluded that there would be a "net benefit" to furthering natural gas exports. The report concluded that any increase in the price of natural gas, which it deemed to be minor, would be more than offset by an increase in economic output.
While President Obama probably sees the economic benefits, his interests in exports could go even deeper. In his speech, Obama said that his decision will not rest on yes or no but will extend to figuring out a way to assure the best price structure in the Western Hemisphere. One reason for this approach is that it's believed that if the U.S. begins exporting gas on a meaningful scale, the international tendency to link natural gas prices with oil could be broken.
You see, outside of the potential economic benefits of exports, there's a certain geopolitical leverage that our country can wield if we're exporting gas. In a speech last month, White House national security advisor Tom Donilon noted that our new-found energy resources give us a "stronger hand in pursuing and implementing our international security goals."
Think of it this way: For years we've been bullied by the price of oil. Our dependence on oil has caused wars and racked up debt. We really had no leverage other than our military might to ensure that oil continued to flow. Now we're not only using less oil, but we're also producing more of our own, which is starting to tilt things in our favor. Further, by becoming a dominant force in the international gas market, we could delink gas and oil prices, which could weaken our international competitors.
Right now, though, the debate is purely economic. That's one reason only Cheniere Energy (LNG -0.53%) has been permitted to export natural gas to non-Free Trade Agreement countries. The company recently noted that its first two export trains are ahead of schedule, meaning it should begin exporting by second half of 2015. So while Cheniere will be first to market, there are a number of companies with projects in the pipeline that want to join Cheniere, including, of course, ExxonMobil.
However, the debate really surrounds keeping all of that gas to ourselves. There's no doubt about it: There are a lot of projects in the pipeline to sop up more of our natural gas. However, according to Enterprise Products Partners (EPD -1.13%), which is a midstream transporter of natural gas and oil, there is a substantial amount of gas "on the shelf." This is gas that could quickly become available once demand picks up enough to raise prices to the point where it's economical to extract. It believes that there's about 25 billion cubic feet per day, or Bcfe/d, of gas production that could be added if the price rose above $5 per MMBtu. It sees that price being the turning point where supply and demand would stay in balance.
In the company's view, over the next five to seven years we have the potential for 11 billion cubic feet equivalent to 20 Bcfe per day of additional natural gas demand. Included in that number is 4 Bcfe/d to 6 Bcfe/d of demand from natural gas exports, which, in its view, is probably the top end of what would be economical for natural gas export projects. That's not a very large number given our vast supply, especially in light of the gas that could easily be brought online at around $5. The bottom line, according to export advocates, is that we have more than enough gas to to use it here at home, while becoming a dominant force in the LNG export market as well.
Still, the debate over natural gas exports is far from over, and the numbers will be debated for a long time. Having President Obama mention becoming a net exporter of natural gas is an interesting twist in a saga that's likely to continue to have many twists and turns. In the meantime, though, score one for ExxonMobil, one of the few companies that actually wins either way.