Category Archives: Side Effects
The fiasco that is playing out in the natural gas industry doesn’t happen often in a free market, and when it does happen, it’s usually short—and brutal for all involved: namely, prices that are way below production costs. In most industries, hedging strategies might get market participants through the period, while unhedged production, a money-losing activity, gets slashed. If it lasts long enough, it causes a shakeout where less efficient or poorly capitalized producers, and their investors, get wiped out. It’s all part of the capitalist system that weeds out weaker elements through occasional sweeps of creative destruction.
As shortages crop up on the horizon, prices return to sustainable levels, and occasionally spike to once again unsustainable levels. For the survivors, or for lucky new entrants, the next step in the cycle has begun.
Alas, thanks to the Fed’s zero-interest-rate policy and the trillions it has handed over to its cronies since late 2008, the sweeps of creative destruction have broken down. Instead, boundless sums of money have been searching for a place to go, and they’re chasing yield when there is none, and so they’re taking risks, any kind of risks, in their vain battle to come out ahead. The result is a stunning misallocation of capital to the tune of tens of billions of dollars to an economic activity—drilling for dry natural gas—that has been highly unprofitable for years. It’s where money has gone to die. What’s left is debt, and wells that will never produce enough to make their investors whole. For that whole debacle, read…. Capital Destruction in Natural Gas.
But the money has dried up. And drilling for natural gas is collapsing. Last week, there were only 562 rigs drilling for dry natural gas—the lowest number since September 1999. A dizzying downward trajectory:
Producers, if at all possible, are switching to drilling for oil and natural gas liquids (priced like oil), still a profitable activity. Thus, capital is now being channeled to where it can make money. Drilling for dry natural gas will continue to decline as the long delayed sweep of creative destruction is scouring the industry.
The largest producer, ExxonMobil, given its monumental size and worldwide focus on oil, will weather the fallout just fine. But the second largest producer, Chesapeake Energy, is struggling. It’s trying to dump assets to raise cash to deal with its mountain of decomposing debt. Other producers that haven’t diversified away from dry natural gas are in a similar quandary. And at current prices, it’s going to be bloody.
At $2.53 per million Btu at the Henry Hub, the price of natural gas is up 33% from the April low of $1.90 per million Btu—a number not seen in a decade. But even if it doubled, it would still be below the cost of production. And if it tripled, it might still be below the cost of production for most producers. That’s how mispriced the commodity has become.
Misallocation of capital, and the resulting overproduction, is only part of the problem. The other part of the problem is horizontal fracking itself—a drilling method that extracts gas from shale formations. With nasty economics. It’s an expensive method. And once drilled, the well suffers from steep decline rates; after a year or a year-and-a-half, only 10% of the original production might still come to the surface.
The breakeven price for natural gas under these conditions—and it differs from well to well—is still partially theoretical since horizontally fracked wells have not yet gone through their entire lifecycle. Here is a detailed discussion and pricing model. The short answer: over $8 per million Btu. Even if that number is off, at the current price of $2.53 per million Btu, the industry is still near its point of maximum pain.
There are consequences. Power generators, having switched massively from coal to natural gas, are driving up demand. And production has finally seen a bend, a small one, in the curve that had set new highs month after month. Now, it’s declining. There is a lag between dropping rig count and production. The rig count estimates how many new wells are being drilled. Even if it dropped to zero next week, production would not immediately be impacted because the current wells would continue to produce. Production would then taper off as a function of decline rates per well—and in fracked wells, that lag is expressed in months, not years.
While the US doesn’t yet have LNG terminals to liquefy and export natural gas—in the global markets, LNG fetches mouthwatering prices between $10 and $15 per million Btu—it does have a pipeline to Mexico. According to BENTEK Energy (via the EIA), pipeline exports to Mexico hit 1,867 million cubic feet per day, a record in the seven plus years that BENTEK has been tracking it (by comparison, Chesapeake Energy produces about 2,575 MMcf/day).
Rising demand and exports are slamming into declining production. What was a record amount of natural gas in storage is coming down rapidly. Fears that storage would reach capacity towards the end of the injection period in the fall, and that natural gas would have to be flared, thus reducing its price to zero, seem ridiculous now. But prices, if they stay in the current ballpark, will continue to demolish producers, drive them away from dry natural gas, and cause financial bloodshed.
Until shortages appear on the horizon. But then, production can’t be ramped up quickly, regardless of what the price might be. Expect a spike and more mayhem, but this time in the other direction.
And oil, which has experienced a phenomenal boom in drilling? In North America, the range of oil qualities and a raft of infrastructure nightmares are wreaking havoc with record price differentials, writes energy expert Marin Katusa in his excellent…. Oil Price Differentials: Caught between the Sands and the Pipelines.
- Will Natural Gas Ever Catch On as an Important Transportation Fuel? (wallstreetpit.com)
- A clear look at Natural Gas (webjunkie09.wordpress.com)
- EIA: Horizontal Drilling Boosts Gas Production in Pennsylvania, USA (mb50.wordpress.com)
- No relief for natural gas producers as Apache’s Kitimat plant delayed (business.financialpost.com)
- A tough break for fracturing companies (fuelfix.com)
- Sad news for peak oil disciples (business.financialpost.com)
- Using Natural Gas (wallstreetpit.com)
Today, the Senate has two hearings scheduled on the Law of the Sea Treaty (LOST). The Senate will have had three hearings on the LOST after today—yet, not for the purposes of educating Senators on the flaws versus the benefits of the treaty. These hearings are a pretext for a lame duck strategy to railroad the treaty through the Senate after the November election.
The first hearing today is titled “Perspectives from the U.S. Military.” Witnesses include Admiral James A. Winnefeld, Jr, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and representatives from other government stakeholders in navigation on the high seas. The question that these witnesses can’t sufficiently answer is, “What can’t you do today, because of the LOST, that you could do if the treaty were to be ratified?” The answer is nothing.
Heritage’s Kim Holmes, former Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs, wrote for The Washington Times last year that the navigational provisions in the treaty are not necessary.
The treaty’s navigational provisions offer nothing new. Yes, the U.S. Navy says (LOST) might improve the “predictability” of these rights, but does the Navy’s access to international waters really depend upon a treaty to which we are not even a member? The last time I checked, the U.S. Navy could go anywhere it wanted in international waters. Though redundant, the navigational provisions of (LOST) are actually pretty good. That’s why President Ronald Reagan supported them. But Reagan and others objected to the unaccountable international bureaucracy created by the treaty.
The second hearing today will include former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Heritage Foundation expert Steve Groves, former Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, and former Legal Advisor at State John B. Bellinger, III. This hearing will be an excellent opportunity for the opponents of LOST to make the case that this treaty is flawed.
The bottom line is that Senator John Kerry (D–MA) has been stacking hearings in favor of proponents of LOST. The first hearing this year included Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
As I wrote in an op-ed at Townhall, opponents of the treaty made a strong case against ratification.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) professed to be starting from a neutral position vis a vis ratification. Directing a query to Ms. Clinton, he said, “A lot of people believe that the administration…wants to use this treaty as a way to get America into a regime relating to carbon, since it has been unsuccessful doing so domestically. And I wonder if you might respond to that.” Ms. Clinton’s response? She said she has a legal analysis that knocks down that argument. But not all Americans are willing to rely on a politically driven legal memo from the Obama Administration as a guarantee that this treaty will not empower the International Sea Bed Authority to force regulations on American business. Those seeking certainty on this vital issue would rather take a pass on the treaty than take a chance on Ms. Clinton’s promises.
Senators Mike Lee (R–UT) and Jim Risch (R–ID) expressed dissatisfaction with the Administration’s alleging that opponents of the treaty were engaging in “misinformation” and “mythology.” Risch argued that “you addressed the people who oppose ratification of the treaty, and…I hope you weren’t scoffing at us.” Proponents have engaged in name calling to avoid the central issues to be considered before ratification.
These hearings are intended to show that Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Kerry allowed conservatives to have their say before the lame duck strategy is implemented. The deck has been stacked, with two hearings in favor and one with a 50–50 split between proponents and opponents. Kerry used a similar strategy the last time the Senate considered the LOST.
Make no mistake; these hearings are part of the strategy of the treaty’s proponents to wait until after the election to push through LOST—in November or December of this year when the American people have no recourse against this offense against American sovereignty.
- Law of the Sea Treaty: A Tool to Combat Iran, China, and Russia? or Redistribution of wealth (mb50.wordpress.com)
- The Republicans’ secret weapon on LOST: information (humanevents.com)
- Colin Hanna: Congress needs to tell Law of the Sea Treaty to get lost (junkscience.com)
- Obama Seeks Ratification Of Power-Grabbing Law Of The Sea Treaty (mb50.wordpress.com)