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We Absolutely Can't Send Gas to Putin's Neighbors

By David Smith - Mar 17, 2014 at 1:12PM

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Eastern European countries are requesting shipments of U.S. natural gas as a way of lessening their dependence on Russia and Gazprom. However, those requests aren't practical -- or really even possible -- for several reasons.

You know about Vladimir Putin's adventures in the Crimean portion of Ukraine. At last count, he'd deployed tens of thousands of Russian military personnel into the area in what could be an adventurism likely designed to reestablish at least portions of the Soviet Union. In fact, unless I miss my bet, Ukraine may be the first of several countries to feel the soles of Russian boots.

But you may not be aware that, clearly with that possibility in mind, four eastern European countries -- Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic -- recently queried House Speaker John Boehner about the possibility of U.S. natural gas being sent their way as a hedge against supply interruptions from Russia's Gazprom. However, it just might be that the request represents the height of absurdity since:

No quick fix
It'll be some time, before those companies preparing to liquefy and ship U.S.-produced natural gas will be ready to do so
. Cheniere Energy (NYSE: LNG) is something of a leader of the domestic LNG pack, and it's not likely to initiate shipments before 2015. By that time, Putin will likely have accomplished -- or been thwarted -- from whatever expansionist objectives he may be harboring. And besides, the gas that will leave our country as LNG will be destined primarily for Asia.

Special ships carrying U.S. LNG will soon traverse the high seas.

Fighting fracking's decline curves
It's received little publicity, but the oil and gas industry is also fighting constant battles with high decline rates in the wells that are being fracked in most plays. Following their initial production, most natural gas wells typically fall off by 50% to 75% in the first year. For oil-producing wells, the decline rate can reach 78% in their first 12 months.

As a result, oil-field services giants Schlumberger ( SLB -0.27% ) and Halliburton ( HAL -0.09% ) have established teams whose purpose is to work with engineers and geologists at operating companies in attempt to maintain optimum production for longer periods. Halliburton's unit, dubbed Cypher, has had success in increasing the understanding of the peculiarities of various types of rock formations and, consequently, the best way to induce hydrocarbon-freeing fractures in them.

Schlumberger also has made similar strides. As you'll recall, the company devotes about $1.2 billion to its vast, worldwide research and development efforts. Indeed, given the need to constantly adapt to new technological situations, both on- and offshore, I'm especially high on both Schlumberger and Halliburton, essentially in that order.

Domestic demand
There is also the issue of our own natural gas needs and the current insufficiency of our related gas transportation infrastructure. Dow Chemical ( DOW )CEO Andrew Liveris has been outspoken regarding the former. He believes that the first loyalty of the U.S. natural gas producers should be to the nation's industrial corporations and power producers. Low prices for the hydrocarbon have unleashed significant growth at home for those sectors -- chemicals among them -- where gas constitutes a key raw material. Dow, with a host of new facilities and projects under way, clearly manifests that need.

The now-departing frigid winter has also demonstrated that, while North American gas reserves have increased significantly during the past several years, a still insufficient infrastructure can be a hindrance to deliveries in special situations. Specifically, with supplies in the Boston area falling short of demand during the unusually cold first six weeks of this year, the average price for a thousand cubic feet of gas in and around Beantown catapulted to $22.53, or about quadruple the nation's benchmark for the period. And much farther west, Montana State University was forced to shut down for a day due to a natural gas shortage in Billings.

Most of those difficulties were tied to insufficient pipeline capacity. At the same time, however, it's worth noting that our nation's amount of gas in storage is now at its lowest level in the past half-dozen years.

Foolish bottom line
So while it's highly likely that during the next couple of years we'll begin sending LNG from the U.S. to Japan and other countries in Asia, it's also obvious that, like charity, concern about maintaining supplies, production, and usage of the hydrocarbon should begin at home. And with such areas of oil and gas as seismic analysis, subsea production, and fracking in need of steady improvement, I'm compelled to repeat my belief that Schlumberger and Halliburton should be on most Fools' radar screens.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis – even one of our own – helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.

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