Guess what, America? Natural gas is cheap and abundant. The ability to access shale gas through new extraction techniques has opened up reserves we didn't think possible, and proven reserves of gas are 60% higher than what they were a decade ago and growing by the day. This has also led to natural gas prices that have seen historical lows. When adjusted for inflation, today's gas prices are where they were in the 1990s.
The most obvious result many of us think about when we hear cheap natural gas is a reduction in electricity prices. This is true, but there are many other benefits that you may not initially think of when you think of cheap, abundant natural gas. So here are five things natural gas is leading to in the United States that you may not have thought about.
1. Updating our energy infrastructure
Up until a few years ago, America's oil and gas pipeline system was woefully underfunded and in desperate need of revamping. More than 50% of America's oil and gas pipeline was built in the 1960s and 1970s, and pipeline spills were becoming a greater threat. One of the biggest reasons we weren't seeing the necessary infrastructure revitalization projects was that 80% of them were privately owned, and diminishing oil and gas production hardly gave companies incentive for maintenance or expansion.
Then the shale boom took off, and look what happened ...
The amount of pipeline investments in 2008 and 2009 were more than in the previous 10 years combined, which led to around 66 billion cubic feet per day of additional capacity. Kinder Morgan (NYSE:KMI), the largest natural gas pipeline company in America, with more than 70,000 miles of pipe, plans to spend another $14 billion itself on natural gas infrastructure expansion over the next five years, which is a huge uptick from the $3.2 billion it spent between 2007 and 2012.
A study by the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America Foundation estimates that between now and 2030, the U.S. and Canada will need somewhere between $150 million and $200 billion in gas pipeline expansions to meet the rising supply, which doesn't even include the maintenance capital that will be required to keep the existing infrastructure up and running. Clearly, we still have lots of work to do. With U.S. gas production surging, companies are much more likely to make those necessary investments.
2. Dropping our driving costs
There has been lots of momentum toward using natural gas as a transportation fuel in the U.S., and justifiably so. Clean Energy Fuels (NASDAQ:CLNE), one of the companies leading the charge in this endeavor, estimates that the amount of natural gas equivalent to a gallon of fuel is about $1.50 less than a gallon of diesel. The savings in fuel and the abundance of natural gas is so great, Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE:RDS-A) estimates that by 2070, road transportation will be oil-free.
It shouldn't be a surprise, then, that both of these companies are developing ways to use natural gas for transportation, although in very different ways. Clean Energy fuels is looking to build a network of compressed natural gas fueling stations and today has more than 300 across the nation. Shell is taking a different approach, as the company is looking to build a $12 billion facility in Louisiana to convert natural gas into traditional gasoline. This process, known as gas to liquids, has been able to produce diesel from natural gas at a cost of about $1.57 per gallon based on today's current prices. If Shell, Clean Energy Fuels, and other companies banking on the conversion to natural gas transportation can make this successful, our wallets may not get stung as severely at the gas pump.
3. Welcoming back manufacturing
Slowly but surely, the advantages that companies had to moving manufacturing jobs overseas are slowly eroding. According to the Boston Consulting Group, the productivity-adjusted labor costs between China and the U.S. are becoming closer every day, thanks to the surge in the Chinese middle class. What's starting to put America over the top, though, is our cheaper energy sources. A thousand cubic feet of natural gas is about $3.58 in the U.S., where that same amount of gas goes for $14.50 in China today.
For energy-intensive industries, America is becoming a much more attractive option, and the construction plans are there to prove it. The American Chemical Council estimates that U.S. chemical manufacturing companies will build almost $72 billion worth of new and expanded chemical facilities. Also, steel manufacturer Nucor (NYSE:NUE) is building the worlds largest direct reduced iron plant that will use natural gas instead of the traditional coking coal to make 2.5 million tons of steel per year. Manufactured metals, chemicals, cement, plastics -- all of these energy-intensive industries could reap the benefits of cheaper energy thanks to natural gas and come back to America.
4. Improving trade relations
All of this manufacturing capacity coming back to America also means that we could see a sharp shift in our trade balance. That same Boston Consulting Group estimates that the shift in manufacturing could lead to a $100 billion shift in U.S. trade, and that doesn't even include what could be our most vital export: natural gas.
Those massive discrepancies between U.S. and Chinese natural gas prices are actually quite common. European gas prices are well over $10 per thousand cubic feet, and Japan has seen gas prices as high as $17. As a potential provider of low-cost energy, LNG could be a very powerful tool in improving economic ties with countries such as China and India.
There are many who see LNG trade as a potential risk that could hamper the potential of the manufacturing boom because too many exports would completely erode any cost advantage here at home. Realistically, though, there is room for both to thrive in America if we don't go overboard with LNG exports.
5. Jolting U.S. jobs
Energy infrastructure construction, reshoring of manufacturing, and LNG exports all lead to one other very important element: jobs. According to Charles Morris' book Comeback: America's Next Economic Boom, the uptick in activity from increased natural gas activity and energy-intensive manufacturing could result in an additional 2.5 million jobs between now and 2020. Adding to that, LNG facilities and increased activity from LNG are expected to add another 665,000 jobs. Job estimates can be very easy to fudge, so take them with a grain of salt. The important thing to see from these numbers, though, is that there is great potential for manufacturing and energy jobs out there over the next couple of years, and natural gas is making a lot of those jobs possible.
What a Fool believes
Natural gas is far from perfect. There are still lots of environmental issues that need to be addressed to make it a longer-term solution, but these issues are not completely insurmountable. Overall, there are several positives that natural gas can bring to America, and many of them are things you may not think of right away. You may not see these effects happen overnight, but don't be surprised if these things eventually become larger forces in our everyday lives.