Thursday, November 08, 2012

Push-me/Pull-you: Post-election Energy Policies

I've seen numerous commentaries on the energy implications of President Obama's narrow, 51%/49%  victory. One of the most intriguing of these, from Reuters, concerned the prospects for exporting a portion of the growing output of natural gas produced from US shale deposits.  This issue doesn't only affect gas drillers and their residential and industrial customers, but also developers of renewable energy projects, because of the way that gas and renewables compete in electricity markets.  As much as the President's reelection, the failure of Republicans to capture control of the US Senate might turn out to be a key factor in determining the fate of potential gas exports, and by extension the environment within which renewables like wind and solar power must compete.

A variety of energy issues has been in limbo for months, pending the outcome of Tuesday's election.  That includes approval of the Keystone XL crude oil pipeline from Canada, which might have gotten a favorable nudge as a result of Senate wins by pro-pipeline Democrats in North Dakota and Montana.  Environmentalists are committed to blocking the pipeline, so the President must soon choose which part of his winning coalition he will disappoint.  By comparison, the question of natural gas exports has received much less attention in the media, although it's been discussed extensively within energy and manufacturing circles.  The likely incoming chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Ron Wyden (D-OR), appears to have strong views on the subject.   

If Senator Wyden does replace the outgoing chairman, Senator Bingaman (D-NM), as expected, this would represent a shift in constituencies from a state with significant oil and gas production to one with essentially none.  Senator Wyden thus brings mainly an end-user perspective to his Energy and Natural Resources role, and from that standpoint his concern about the potential price impact of gas exports, whether in the form of LNG or otherwise, is understandable, although I would argue it is also short-sighted and potentially detrimental to renewable energy, which he strongly supports.

On the surface, restrictions on the export of US gas should result in lower domestic natural gas prices than if large quantities of gas were shipped offshore.  After all, low US natural gas prices, compared to those in Europe and Asia, are the main driver behind the desire to build export facilities, such as the Sabine Pass project of Cheniere Energy.  Natural gas is cheaper in the US than elsewhere for several reasons, including the high and growing output from shale gas resources, as well as the epic disconnect between the natural gas price and crude oil prices, which are the basis for most international LNG contracts. US gas at the wellhead is currently trading for the oil equivalent of $21 per barrel, compared to UK Brent Crude at $107 per barrel.  The extent to which exports might increase domestic prices is a matter of much speculation and study, and I wouldn't venture a guess.  However, we can't just look at demand in gauging the impact of export restrictions.

The efficacy of holding down US prices by keeping more gas here also depends on the response of producers.  If legislators or regulators turn the US gas market into a capped bottle, why would producers be content to supply steadily increasing quantities of gas at prices that don't provide them an attractive return?  To some degree the low prices we've seen this year were the result of the combination of a weak economy and a supply glut created by contractual commitments on the part of drillers to develop gas leases at a specified pace.  My understanding is that most such commitments have lapsed, and that a significant proportion of current gas supply is coming from wells that depend on the economics of their liquids output (crude oil and gas liquids), with the associated natural gas effectively a byproduct.  It's not clear how rapidly gas production can continue to grow without natural gas prices that make gas-only wells economically attractive.  So a US gas market with no export outlets would likely produce less gas in the long run, and that would constrain opportunities to use our abundant gas resources to support new industries, displace oil from transportation, and further reduce the use of coal in power generation.

Moreover, keeping a lid on the US gas market would compound the obstacles for renewable sources of electricity.  Wind power developers and turbine manufacturers now face the expiration of the Wind Production Tax Credit (PTC).  Even if it is extended, the output of wind farms competes with the output of gas turbines, while the grid relies on gas-fired power to provide a back-up for the intermittent output of wind and solar power.  The cheaper the gas, the tougher it will be for renewables to make a profit. Market competition with gas will become an even bigger issue for renewables as they expand beyond the capacity of a cash-strapped federal government to continue to subsidize them.  The one-year extension of the PTC under consideration could cost as much as $12 billion, an annual price tag that would only grow as renewables scale up--as they must if they are going to matter.

Navigating the complexities of allowing or restricting natural gas exports, and balancing the various constituencies involved, could provide an early test of the administration's commitment to an all-of-the-above energy strategy.  That's because "all of the above"--if not merely a slogan--implies more than just producing energy from a variety of sources.  It also entails competition among all these sources within a market in which some sectors of demand are declining, others growing, and new ones--including exports--are appearing all the time.  Pushing back on one part of this market will have large consequences in other parts, and regulators could soon be overwhelmed by unintended consequences. 

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