U.S. natural gas exports could surge if DOE approves applications

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By Lou Kilzer, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Wednesday, December 28, 2011

About one-fifth of the United States’ annual natural gas production could be shipped to India, Japan, China and other countries if the Department of Energy approves an increasing number of applications from companies that want to establish export terminals, a senior department official told the Tribune-Review.

Applicants began requesting permission to export American natural gas late last year. The latest and biggest application arrived a week ago, said John Anderson, manager of natural gas regulatory activities at DOE’s Office of Fossil Fuels.

That application, from Gulf Coast LNG Export LLC, asks to export 2.8 billion cubic feet of liquefied natural gas daily to countries with which the United States has no free-trade agreements.

Gulf Coast LNG appears to be a mystery company. The DOE has not posted the application on its docket board, so Anderson told the Trib on Tuesday that he is reluctant to name those involved.

The Gulf Coast LNG application came shortly after one filed on Dec. 19 by Freeport LNG Expansion, L.P and FLNG Liquefaction LLC. The two companies now want to export 2.8 billion cubic feet per day from a Texas port — double the amount of gas the companies had earlier sought permission to export.

The two December applications confirm previous reports by the Trib about an exploding interest in sending American natural gas abroad.

In May, the DOE gave its first and only approval to export natural gas to Sabine Pass Liquefaction LLC. Sabine, with a right to ship 2.2 billion cubic feet a day from a Louisiana port, Sabine has already signed contracts with companies in India, Great Britain and Spain to export American natural gas. In all, nine export applications have been filed.

Anderson said the department will grant no further approvals until two studies it commissioned are completed in the first quarter of 2012 examining the “impact on consumption, the economy, GDP and balance of trade.” The U.S. Energy Information Administration and a private firm are conducting the studies.

Price impact is key, he said, as is “the energy security of the United States.”

Those hoping to export argue that America is awash in natural gas because of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling techniques that revolutionized gas production from deep shale formations. They forecast a small impact on prices and an increase in American jobs.

Dan Donovan, a spokesman for Dominion Resources, which wants to export Marcellus shale gas from Cove Point, Md., said studies show the United States is producing enough gas for domestic use “and limited exports.”

Exports would “support price stability,” he said.

Others, including oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens, argue that America should use its natural gas to produce electricity and power vehicles, thereby reducing the nation’s reliance on foreign oil. Pickens has told the Tribune-Review that if America exports natural gas, “we’re truly going to go down as the dumbest generation.”

Paul Cicio, president of Industrial Consumers of America, an organization representing American manufacturers with more than $700 billion in combined annual sales, told the Trib yesterday that “we’re clearly in unchartered waters here.”

His organization opposes exporting natural gas, in part for the same reason that proponents cite in their support: jobs.

“The possibility of (gas) rate growth is alarming manufacturing consumers,” he said.

Cicio said he believes the need to convert power plants from coal to gas will grow because of the Environmental Protection Agency’s new emissions regulations for plants.

Money is the bottom line: Natural gas prices in some places in Asia are three to four times that of U.S. prices, according to the energy reporting service Platts. That means that even when figuring in the cost of gas liquefaction and shipping, companies potentially could make more profit by exporting, Barclays Capital said this year.

The government estimates daily production of natural gas for 2011 will be 65.6 billion cubic feet a day. The export applications seek to ship a combined 12.51 billion cubic feet a day, or about 19 percent at the 2011 level.

Natural gas is transported in liquefied form by cooling it to minus 260 degrees. At that temperature, it takes up about 1/600 the space of its gaseous state.

A few years ago, energy experts predicted America would become a large importer of liquefied natural gas and companies scrambled to build plants to receive it from overseas. Owners of those ports want to reverse course and turn them into export terminals.

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