The United States is poised to flood world markets with once-unthinkable quantities of liquefied natural gas as soon as this year, profoundly changing the geo-politics of global energy and posing a major threat to Russian gas dominance in Europe.
“We anticipate becoming big players, and I think we’ll have a big impact,” said the Ernest Moniz, the US Energy Secretary. “We’re going to influence the whole global LNG market.”
Mr Moniz said four LNG export terminals are under construction and the first wave of shipments may begin before the end of this year or in early 2016 at the latest.
“Certainly in this decade, there’s a good chance that we will be LNG exporters on the scale of Qatar, which is today’s largest LNG exporter,” he said, speaking on the margins of the IHS CERAWeek energy summit in Texas.
Qatar exports just over 100 billion cubic meters (BCM), though Australia is catching up fast as the offshore Gorgon field comes on stream. It may pull ahead of Qatar later this decade.
Mr Moniz said the surge in US output from shale fracking has already transformed the global market. “We would have been importing a lot of LNG by now. Those cargoes would have gone elsewhere and have in fact had a significant impact in the European market,” he said.
Gas frackers assembled at the world’s “energy Davos” in Houston said exports could ultimately be much higher, potentially overtaking Russia as the world’s biggest supplier of natural gas of all kinds.
“We’re just fifteen years into a 150-year process,” said Steve Mueller, head of Southwestern Energy, the fourth biggest producer of gas in the US .
Marcellus basin stretching from West Virginia through Pennsylvania to New York state is driving the explosive growth. Interlocking fractures in the rock make it possible for a single well with advanced technology to extract much more gas than thought possible just five years ago.
Once thought to be in decline, the Marcellus alone produces 113 BCM a year. This is roughly equivalent to Russia’s exports to Europe through the Nord Stream, Yamal, and Brotherhood pipelines.
Mr Mueller defiantly sweeps aside those who claim that the US fracking industry is in serious trouble, insisting that drilling costs are coming down so fast that his company – and others – are staying a step ahead of falling prices.
“Rig efficiency was flat for thirty years but since then we’ve cut by five times. We have set in motion something that you can’t deny and is irresistible,” he said.
Mr Mueller said it had taken his company 17 days to drill a 2,600 ft well as recently as 2007. It has just drilled a 5,400 ft well in six days. “The new technology is amazing. We have a drill-bit with a chip inside that makes its own changes,” he said.
He is continuing to invest heavily and hopes to boost output by up to 10pc annually for the next three years, despite a drop in gas prices to around US$2.60 per million British thermal units (BTU). “If it stays around US$3, we’ll be fine,” he said.
The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) expects gas prices to rise to US$4.88 in real terms by 2020, and US$7.85 by 2040.
What is remarkable is that US drillers can produce a third more natural gas today with 280 rigs than they did in 2009 with 1,200 rigs. Total shale output has soared to over 350 BCM from almost nothing a decade ago. It now makes up half of US gas production.
The Obama administration has so far been slow to approve new export terminals for LNG, partly because of concerns that the US would lose its massive advantage in energy and feedstock costs for industry.
Gas sells at for US$7 in Europe, and over US$10 in North-East Asia, four times more expensive. This cost-gap has been a key driver behind America’s so-called “manufacturing renaissance”, stoking an investment boom in chemicals, plastics, and glass, and saving the country’s steel mills from slow death.
A corridor from Houston to New Orleans has attracted 33 petrochemical plants worth over US$1bn each since 2011. The American Chemistry Council expects over US$130 billion of industrial projects along this stretch by 2023.
The administration has concluded that the US lead is now so entrenched that there is little to lose from a partial levelling of the global playing field. The expense of freezing gas for liquefaction to minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit and shipping it across the Atlantic or Pacific in molybdenum-hulled vessels is enough to maintain a big cost advantage for US manufacturers.
Four LNG terminals with a combined export capacity of 70 BCM are likely to be approved soon by the Energy Department. The front-runner is Cherniere’s US$18bn terminal at Sabine Pass in Louisiana.
Experts are split over whether North America really can become the world’s dominant LNG player. Moody’s warned earlier this month that most of the 30 gas liquefaction projects planned in the US and Canada will never get off the ground, chiefly due to the linkage between LNG contracts and the price of crude. “The drop in international oil prices has wiped out the price advantage US LNG projects,” it said.
Michael Smith, head of Freeport LNG, said his company will press ahead regardless with plans for a US$13bn plant near Houston, and predicted that the US could soon leap-frog all rivals to become the new gas hegemon. “Our projects are very competitive and we will continue to have an advantage over the rest of the world,” he said.
Russian president Vladimir Putin warned at the St Petersburg economic summit last year that US shale gas was abruptly changing the international order, with serious implications for his country. The early effects have forced down global LNG prices, creating a rival source of gas supply in Europe.
Any future American cargoes would further erode Gazprom’s pricing power in Europe, and erode the Kremlin’s political leverage. The EU already has a large network of import terminals for LNG.
Lithuania has just finished its “Independence” terminal, opening up the Baltic states to LNG. Poland’s new terminal should be ready this year.
America’s parallel drive for shale oil is equally breath-taking. Scott Sheffield, head of Pioneer Natural Resources, said his company has discovered huge reserves in the vast Permian Basin of West Texas.
“We think the Permian could produce 5-6m barrels a day (b/d) in the long-term,” he said. It is a staggering claim. This would be more than Saudi Arabia’s giant Ghawar field, the biggest in the world.
Ryan Lance, head of ConocoPhillips, said North American oil output could reach 15m b/d by 2020 and 25m b/d over the next quarter century, three times Saudi Arabia’s current exports.
A vault forward on this scale would establish the US as the leading energy superpower in both oil and gas, a revival that almost nobody could have imagined seven years ago when the United States was in near panic over its exorbitant dependency of imported fuel. It would restore the US to its mid-20th Century position as a surplus trading nation, and perhaps ultimately as world’s biggest external creditor once again.
Fracking is still an almost exclusive preserve of North America, and is likely to remain so into the early 2020s. China has large ambitions but the volumes are still tiny, and there is a shortage of water in key areas. Fracking remains mere talk in most other regions of the world.
Lukoil analysts say Russian extraction costs for shale are four times higher that those of US wildcat drillers. Sanctions currently prevent the Russians importing the know-how and technology to tap its vast Bazhenov basin at a viable cost.
John Hess, the founder of Hess Corporation, said it takes a unique confluence of circumstances to pull off a fracking revolution: landowner rights over sub-soil minerals, a pipeline infrastructure, the right taxes and regulations, and good rock. “We haven’t seen those stars align yet,” he said.
Above all it requires the acquiescence of the people. “It takes a thousand trucks going in and out to launch a (drilling) spud. Not every neighbourhood wants that,” he said.
Certainly not in Sussex, Burgundy, or Bavaria. – The Telegraph