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Shale We Review the 2010s?

By Evelyn Teel and Jim McDonnell

With the decade coming to a close, this is a perfect opportunity to look back at how the energy market has changed over the past ten years. It has certainly been a whirlwind ride, starting shortly after the 2008 stock market crash and continuing through the Great Recession and the subsequent recovery. The decade also saw the shale gas revolution take hold. Arguably the most significant change in the energy market over the past ten years, the shale gas revolution has not only provided great economic benefit within the United States but also reshaped our position on the world stage.

The two technologies instrumental to the shale gas revolution – hydraulic fracturing (i.e., fracking, or inducing porosity and permeability in rock) and directional drilling (greatly increasing a wellbore’s exposure to hydrocarbon bearing formations) – have been around for decades. However, Texan George P. Mitchell of Mitchell Energy & Development Corp., through sheer determination and personal will over seventeen years, was able to advance and combine these technologies, thus enabling the extraction of natural gas from shale formations that are of low porosity (i.e., not much pore space in the rock) and low permeability (i.e., the pore spaces are not well interconnected). These formations underlie large swaths of the United States, and the proven reserves of natural gas have consistently increased over the past decade.

The shale gas revolution is commonly considered to have started in 2008, and in the 2010s, we have witnessed the remarkable changes that have resulted from its growth. As fracked wells have come online, the ready supply of low-cost natural gas has transformed the energy industry in America and the world. The graph below on the left shows the volume of natural gas produced daily in the United States between 1997 and 2010, measured in billions of cubic feet per day (Bcf/day). Production over this period remained relatively flat, averaging about 50 Bcf/day. Compare that to the graph on the right, which shows the volume of natural gas produced in the United States from 2010 to the present. The volume of natural gas produced daily has very nearly doubled to about 93 Bcf/day.

Though demand for natural gas has increased, the more dramatically increasing supply of natural gas has driven down its price. The graph below shows how US natural gas prices at the Henry Hub have declined from about $6 per million Btu (mmBtu) to $2.19 per mmBtu today.  

Due to the increased availability of cheap, abundant natural gas, an increasing number of liquified natural gas (LNG) export terminals have come online, and the United States has become a major exporter of LNG. This reverses a long-term trend of rising LNG imports. The graphs below show US LNG imports and exports from 1985 – 2009 (left) and 2010 – 2019 (right).

In most parts of the country, natural gas prices and electricity prices are strongly correlated. As natural gas prices move so do, generally, electricity prices. Thus, as natural gas prices have fallen, electricity prices have fallen as well. The graph below shows wholesale electricity prices in the Mid-Atlantic measured in dollars per megawatt-hour ($/MWH). Wholesale electricity prices are almost half of what they were ten years ago.   

The abundance of natural gas and the declining prices of natural gas and electricity have been driven by the dramatic increase in shale gas production.  

The map and graph below identify the regions and geological “plays” in the US where shale gas production is occurring. Shale gas production has increased to two-thirds of this rising total US natural gas production from only a minor contribution only ten years ago.    

Source: US DOE EIA

Though many people doubted fracking would work with crude oil deposits, as oil molecules are much larger than those of natural gas, Mark Papa of EOG Resources, Harold Hamm of Continental Resources, and others have been able to adapt fracking technology to the extraction of oil. We have thus seen a shale oil revolution take hold, which has brought benefits similar to those of the shale gas revolution. It has driven down petroleum prices in the United States and dramatically reduced our dependence on foreign oil.  The US recently became a net exporter of oil products (refined petroleum and crude oil). Overall, the US is now the world’s largest producer of natural gas (93 Bcf per day versus 58 Bcf per day during 2010) and crude oil (13 million barrels per day versus 5.5 million barrels per day during 2010). 

The shale revolutions have significantly changed the US energy landscape over the past decade. They have brought online abundant sources of low-cost domestic energy, which have driven down consumer prices, boosted our economy, created jobs, improved America’s energy security, and increased revenue to state and local governments and the federal government. Fracking and directional drilling require a smaller footprint than traditional drilling, and have helped reduce CO2 emissions as natural gas is being substituted for coal in electricity generation. Low cost, abundant natural gas complements intermittent sources of energy such as wind and solar.

In addition to all the benefits noted above, low energy prices in the United States have expanded the manufacturing sector and made the country more attractive to companies willing to relocate from overseas. Indeed, the shale revolutions have done nothing less than improve the United States’ geopolitical position, reducing our dependence on foreign oil and shoring up our export capacity.

Like any fuel source, shale gas comes with trade-offs. There are concerns about induced seismicity, water and air pollution, and health impacts. Further technological advances and refinements in the field may alleviate these concerns, and we look forward to seeing how this industry progresses in the 2020s.

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Copyright 2019 by Avalon Energy® Services LLC

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Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG)

The development of a liquefied natural gas export trade was identified in a previous article as an influence that would put upward pressure on natural gas prices. To follow is an overview of where the US liquefied natural gas markets have been and where they may be headed. But first, what is liquefied natural gas?

At atmospheric temperature and pressure, natural gas (methane, CH4) exists in a gaseous state. When cooled to minus 260 degrees F, methane condenses into a liquid state. This liquid form of methane takes up approximately 1/600th the volume of methane in gaseous form and is known as liquefied natural gas or LNG. From a commercial perspective, the distribution of natural gas is limited to the pipeline network natural gas can be delivered into, whereas, because of its much greater energy density (70% that of gasoline), LNG can be transported in cryogenic tanks over long distances by specialized ocean going vessels.

How big is the LNG market in the US? The above graph shows the volume of LNG imports and exports into and out of the US over the twenty-six year period of time spanning 1985 through 2010. [Click on graphs to enlarge.] LNG imports became significant around the turn of the century, peaked at 770 billion cubic feet (BCF) during 2007 and then fell off as natural gas prices dropped precipitously during 2008. During 2010, the US imported 431 BCF of LNG. LNG export volumes have been minor, averaging 58 BCF per year.

During 2011, the slide in LNG imports continued as shown in the graph above, totaling 350 BCF (estimate).

How have LNG imports compared to overall US consumption? Consumption of natural gas in the US rose dramatically from 4,971 BCF during 1949 to 22,101 BCF during 1972, after which it fell to 16,221 BCF during 1986 and then rose to 23,775 BCF during 2010. Over the last 26 years, LNG imports as a share of total US consumption peaked at 3.3% during 2007.

How have LNG import volumes behaved compared to US natural gas prices? These two variables are presented together on the above graph. It is hard to tell much from this graph. We took the above data and lagged (shifted forward in time) the natural gas prices one month at a time and calculated the correlation between LNG import volumes and US natural gas prices.

The correlation is highest at 53.8% with a 19 month lag as shown on the left graph above. The graph to the right shows the same volume and pricing data with prices shifted forward 19 months.

So far we have looked at LNG import volumes. What about LNG export volumes? Since 1985, LNG export volumes have been minor, averaging 58 BCF per year. In the current low natural gas price environment (the February NYMEX futures contract settled at $2.32 on 1/19/12) this will change.

There are twelve LNG import terminals in the US (see table at end of article). Nine applications have been submitted to the Department of Energy seeking permits that would allow facilities to export LNG. Two permit requests have been conditionally approved. One is Cheniere Energy in Sabine, Louisiana and the other is Dominion’s Cove Point facility on the Chesapeake Bay.

Exports of 6 BCF per day, or 2,190 BCF per year, are equivalent to 9.8% of current US natural gas consumption. The nine facilities that have applied for export permits, together, seek to ship about 14 BCF of natural gas per day. If they are all successful, exports would grow to 5,110 BCF per year, or the equivalent of 22% of current US natural gas consumption.

This is a stunning change in the US LNG trade and will certainly create upward pressure on natural gas prices in the US. The range of estimates of the price increase impact of each BCF per day of exports, according to ICF, are from $0.02 to $0.30 per mmBtu. EIA’s estimates for each BCF of exports range from $0.07 to $0.17 per mmBtu.

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Copyright 2012 by Avalon Energy® Services LLC