Guest Post: The Absurdity Of US Natural Gas Exports

Tyler Durden's picture

Submitted by Gail Tverberg via Our Infinite World blog,


1. How much natural gas is the United States currently extracting?

(a) Barely enough to meet its own needs
(b) Enough to allow lots of exports
(c) Enough to allow a bit of exports
(d) The United States is a natural gas importer

Answer: (d) The United States is a natural gas importer, and has been for many years. The EIA is forecasting that by 2017, we will finally be able to meet our own natural gas needs.

Figure 1. US Natural Gas recent history and forecast, based on EIA's Annual Energy Outlook 2014 Early Release Overview

Figure 1. US Natural Gas recent history and forecast, based on EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook 2014 Early Release Overview

In fact, this last year, with a cold winter, we have had a problem with excessively drawing down amounts in storage.

Figure 2. US EIA's chart showing natural gas in storage, compared to the five year average, from Weekly Natural Gas Storage Report.

Figure 2. US EIA’s chart showing natural gas in storage, compared to the five year average, from Weekly Natural Gas Storage Report.

There is even discussion that at the low level in storage and current rates of production, it may not be possible to fully replace the natural gas in storage before next fall.

2. How much natural gas is the United States talking about exporting?

(a) A tiny amount, less than 5% of what it is currently producing.
(b) About 20% of what it is currently producing.
(c) About 40% of what it is currently producing.
(d) Over 60% of what it is currently producing.

The correct answer is (d) Over 60% what it is currently producing. If we look at the applications for natural gas exports found on the Energy.Gov website, we find that applications for exports total 42 billion cubic feet a day, most of which has already been approved.* This compares to US 2013 natural gas production of 67 billion cubic feet a day. In fact, if companies applying for exports build the facilities in, say, 3 years, and little additional natural gas production is ramped up, we could be left with less than half of current natural gas production for our own use.

*This is my calculation of the sum, equal to 38.51 billion cubic feet a day for Free Trade Association applications (and combined applications), and 3.25 for Non-Free Trade applications.

3. How much are the United States’ own natural gas needs projected to grow by 2030?

a. No growth
b. 12%
c. 50%
d. 150%

If we believe the US Energy Information Administration, US natural gas needs are expected to grow by only 12% between 2013 and 2030 (answer (a)). By 2040, natural gas consumption is expected to be 23% higher than in 2013. This is a little surprising for several reasons. For one, we are talking about scaling back coal use for making electricity, and we use almost as much coal as natural gas. Natural gas is an alternative to coal for this purpose.

Furthermore, the EIA expects US oil production to start dropping by 2020 (Figure 3, below), so logically we might want to use natural gas as a transportation fuel too.

Figure 3. US Annual Energy Outlook 2014 Early Release Oil Forecast for the United States.

Figure 3. US Annual Energy Outlook 2014 Early Release Oil Forecast for the United States.

We currently use more oil than natural gas, so this change could in theory lead to a 100% or more increase in natural gas use.

Many nuclear plants we now have in service will need to be replaced in the next 20 years. If we substitute natural gas in this area as well, it would further send US natural gas usage up. So the EIA’s forecast of US natural gas needs definitely seem on the “light” side.

4. How does natural gas’s production growth fit in with the growth of other US fuels according to the EIA?

(a) Natural gas is the only fuel showing much growth
(b) Renewables grow by a lot more than natural gas
(c) All fuels are growing

The answer is (a). Natural gas is the only fuel showing much growth in production between now and 2040.

Figure 4 below shows the EIA’s figure from its Annual Energy Outlook 2014 Early Release showing expected production of all types of fuels.

Figure 4. Forecast US Energy Production by source, from US EIA's Annual Energy Outlook 2014 Early Release.

Figure 4. Forecast US Energy Production by source, from US EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook 2014 Early Release.

Natural gas is pretty much the only growth area, growing from 31% of total energy production in 2012 to 38% of total US energy production in 2040. Renewables are expected to grow from 11% to 12% of total US energy production (probably because the majority is hydroelectric, and this doesn’t grow much). All of the others fuels, including oil, are expected to shrink as percentages of total energy production between 2012 and 2040.

5. What is the projected path of natural gas prices:

(a) Growing slowly
(b) Ramping up quickly
(c) It depends on who you ask

It depends on who you ask: Answer (c). According to the EIA, natural gas prices are expected to remain quite low. The EIA provides a forecast of natural gas prices for electricity producers, from which we can estimate expected wellhead prices (Figure 5).

Figure 5. EIA Forecast of Natural Gas prices for electricity use from AEO 2014 Advance Release, together with my forecast of corresponding wellhead prices. (2011 and 2012 are actual amounts, not forecasts.)

Figure 5. EIA Forecast of Natural Gas prices for electricity use from AEO 2014 Advance Release, together with my forecast of corresponding wellhead prices. (2011 and 2012 are actual amounts, not forecasts.)

In this forecast, wellhead prices remain below $5.00 until 2028. Electricity companies look at these low price forecasts and assume that they should plan on ramping up electricity production from natural gas.

The catch–and the reason for all of the natural gas exports–is that most shale gas producers cannot produce natural gas at recent price levels. They need much higher price levels in order to make money on natural gas. We see one article after another on this subject: From Oil and Gas Journal; from Bloomberg; from the Financial Times. The Wall Street Journal quoted Exxon’s Rex Tillerson as saying, “We are all losing our shirts today. We’re making no money. It’s all in the red.”

Why all of the natural gas exports, if we don’t have very much natural gas, and the shale gas portion (which is the only portion with much potential for growth) is so unprofitable? The reason for all of the exports is too pump up the prices shale gas producers can get for their gas. This comes partly by engineering higher US prices (by shipping an excessive portion overseas) and partly by trying to take advantage of higher prices in Europe and Japan.

Figure 6. Comparison of natural gas prices based on World Bank "Pink Sheet" data. Also includes Pink Sheet world oil price on similar basis.

Figure 6. Comparison of natural gas prices based on World Bank “Pink Sheet” data. Also includes Pink Sheet world oil price on similar basis.

There are several catches in all of this. Dumping huge amounts of natural gas on world export markets is likely to sink the selling price of natural gas overseas, just as dumping shale gas on US markets sank US natural gas prices here (and misled some people, by making it look as if shale gas production is cheap). The amount of natural gas export capacity that is in the approval process is huge: 42 billion cubic feet per day. The European Union imports only about 30 billion cubic feet a day from all sources. This amount hasn’t increased since 2005, even though EU natural gas production has dropped. Japan’s imports amounted to 12 billion cubic feet of natural gas a day in 2012; China’s amounted to about 4 billion cubic feet. So in theory, if we try hard enough, there might be a place for the 42 billion cubic feet per day of natural gas to go–but it would take a huge amount of effort.

There are other issues involved, as well. The countries that are importing huge amounts of high-priced natural gas are not doing well financially. They aren’t going to be able to afford to import a whole lot more high-priced natural gas. In fact, a big part of the reason that they are not doing well financially is because they are paying so much for imported natural gas (and oil).

If the US has to pay these high prices for natural gas (even if we produce it ourselves), we won’t be doing very well financially either. In particular, companies who manufacture goods with electricity from high-priced natural gas will find that the goods they make are not competitive with goods made with cheaper fuels (coal, nuclear, or hydroelectric) in the world marketplace. This is a problem, whether the country produces the high-priced natural gas itself or imports it. So the issue is not an imported fuel problem; it is a high-priced fuel problem.

Another issue is that with shale gas, we are the high cost producer. There is a lot of natural gas production around the world, particularly in the Middle East, that is cheaper. If we add our high cost of shale gas to the high cost of shipping LNG long-distance across the Atlantic or Pacific, we will most definitely be the high cost producer. Other producers with lower costs (even local shale gas producers) can undercut our prices. So at best those shipping LNG overseas are likely to make mediocre profits.

And there would seem to be great temptation to stir up trouble, to encourage Europe to buy our natural gas exports, rather than Russia’s. Of course, our ability to provide this natural gas is not entirely clear. It makes a good story, with lots of “ifs” involved: “If we can really extract this natural gas. If the price can really go up and stay up. If you can wait long enough.” The story makes the US look more rich and powerful than it really is. We can even pretend to offer help to the Ukraine.

Perhaps the best outcome would be if virtually none of this natural gas export capacity ever gets built–approval or no approval. If it is really possible to get the natural gas out, we need it here instead. Or leave it in the ground.

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LawsofPhysics's picture

Optimistic predictions (it's how an eCONomist keeps their "job" until something better comes alone...).


And what does their track record look like?

Dollarmedes's picture

I'm getting a little tired of the idea that all US production goes toward internal demand first. Production will go toward the market with the highest price; that's called "capitalism." That means no matter how much natgas the US produces, we will probably always import *some*.

Dollarmedes's picture

Also, production going towards the highest bidder will result in high profits for the shareholders of energy companies. They will maximize their resources to take advantage of that. But I guess all those retirement funds are supposed to overlook that because *screw them*...amiright?

knukles's picture

It's all political horseshit.
Fuck the EU

Oh regional Indian's picture

Nothing needs to make sense anymore, all absurd.

Here in India, our gold mines have been shut pretty much since the british left. All flooded, machinery rusted in, tunnels dilapidated. And we import what? How much?

It's all a clown show. I'll save my nuts till a really bad winter comes then I'll starve all of you....

Machine minds running things..



0b1knob's picture

This is the LONGEST circular argument I've ever read.

In a closed system where there are no facilities to export a commodity, production is ALWAY going to be about equal to consumption.  How could it be otherwise?

gmrpeabody's picture

All of this begs the question…, who owns the natural gas? Is it the land owner with his mineral rights? Do mineral rights go all the way the Earth’s core? Is natural gas like water, where possession is 9/10’s of the law…, some of the time?


I always wonder where ownership of a country’s natural resources begins and ends. Though I consider myself to be a little right of Attila the Hun, I can’t help but think that government would be remiss to allow the nations resources to be shipped away to the great benefit of a select few, while the rest of the sheep suffer. Perhaps good debate for a later time.

SRSrocco's picture

Of course we'll export some LNG in the future. It would look completely stupid if we didn't use these LNG export facilities after they cost $billions to construct.

Unfortunately, by the time these LNG facilities are built, the shale gas market will need $7.25 mmbtu (Art Berman) to actually produce enough natgas to export some.  However, this higher price makes the LNG export model much less attractive.

What I am waiting for is for someone in the Industry to say... WE ARE GOING TO EXPORT U.S. OIL in the future. That would be even a better stunt as we import a little less than half of what we produce.

Seems to be a lot of BRAIN DAMAGE out there.

idea_hamster's picture

"So the issue is not an imported fuel problem; it is a high-priced fuel problem."

Next up:  

Oil Sheik-tallow candles! Low-soot! Medium-stink. Conscience friendly.  

(May include up to 5% Dick Cheney heart valve plaque.)

GooseShtepping Moron's picture

Yes it is. I miss The Oil Drum. It was a quiet, civil, very informative kind of website of which there are nowhere near enough. Gail's work is excellent and deserves an appreciative audience, and I know some of the folks at Zero Hedge will enjoy it.

CrashisOptimistic's picture

"This is the LONGEST circular argument I've ever read.

In a closed system where there are no facilities to export a commodity, production is ALWAY going to be about equal to consumption.  How could it be otherwise?"

Except that's not the point. 

In the world of economics demand and consumption are the same thing.  In the world of rational reality, that doesn't have to be so.

So suppose production is less than demand.  That means no growth.

zaphod's picture

I'd say that is a smart policy, keep your gold in the ground. Then if/when you really need it you can reopen the mines. 

Those contries that conserve/don't touch their resources, will benefit much more down the line when they become globably scarce. 

Lore's picture

You nailed it. Our natural gas forecasters are bluffing with a lousy poker hand, because the crime bosses they answer to are psychopaths who could not care less about minor annoyances like 'truth.' They care only about getting their 'way.' They're liars, destroyers and control freaks, pure evil.

Citxmech's picture

Hey!  These charts don't look anything like the ones featured in that shiny invest brochure I got from that gas exploration company. . . 

CrashisOptimistic's picture

You and the previous guy have ignored shipping and LNG conversion costs.

You can't look at a price here and say, hey the price is higher there so I'll sell it there.  Costs eat it up.

CrazyCooter's picture


About 30% of the energy in NG is used to cool it to -162 °C (-260 °F) such that it liquifies to LNG. While the energy for this process can come from an external source, it is *energy* not dollars.

Exporting LNG has a huge cost built into it and is usually done when there is no domestic market for traditional delivery (e.g. north slope Alaska and the current effort to build a gas pipeline/LNG facility).



post turtle saver's picture

typical LNG trains use 9% of feed gas for LNG production... some of the newer tech has cut that down to as low as 6%... and before you start splitting hairs with me, yes, I mean 6 to 9% on an energy basis...

if it took 30% on an energy basis as you claim, LNG wouldn't be profitable, period end of story

furgheddubouddit's picture

Or in other words: US gas producers feel that the prices they are receiving are too low, so therefore will create an artificial gas shortage, and accompanying price spike, by shipping the stuff offshore.

Just another racketeering scheme.

Forget about history never repeating. Back to the good old Enron days we go.

Renewable Life's picture

I'm waiting for someone to say, we have a sea of gas and oil to extract right here in the good ol US of A, it's just "not at the right price to do it" next!!!

I also love the fools purporting that commodities operate in a free market capital pricing mechanism on this planet!!!! That has happened since the turn of the 20th century! Ask Putin whats free market about whats going on in Russia right now?? Jesus, people! Exporting energy from the most wasteful, energy dependent, consumption clueless society in the history of the world??? Are you fucking serious??

Not only will we NOT be exporting energy, we will continue to consume 1/3 of the worlds resources with 350 million people on a planet of 8 billion, until the price gets sooooo fucking high, it all crashes in a global heap of globalist shit, which yes at that point, energy might "price" correctly and we might export some.

But don't be silly, 250 million Americans will be getting there heat from wood or moving to a mild climate to survive and the rest will be walking and riding bikes to work( if they are lucky enough to work) but the fucking energy will be being exported in some none USD currency, then!

LawsofPhysics's picture

Please, "capitalism" requires a respect for capital.

This does not exist in a "debt is money"/"bailout nation"...

hedge accordingly...

FeralSerf's picture

And "respect for capital" requires the generous use of jackboots.

Patience grasshopper, we're getting there.

Mad_max's picture

It require risk. When the jackboots come in then it become socialism/ corporatism/ fascism. Whatever you want to call it. Socialsim works fine for a name for it.

FeralSerf's picture

Why not call it what it really is, "feudalism"? Corporatism and fascism were/are really just new words for feudalism, the ownership of the proletariat by a few rich "lords".

Socialism is really just a pack of lies told by those feudal lords to their flocks of serfs to convince them that the wolves that are herding those flocks are just there to help them. "We're from the government and we're here to help you."

We have met the mutton and they are us.

Dollarmedes's picture

So what you're saying is, the US isn't practicing capitalism.

...and our economy (the real one) is stuck in neutral, at best.

Hmmmm...maybe we should try capitalism?

moneybots's picture

"I'm getting a little tired of the idea that all US production goes toward internal demand first. Production will go toward the market with the highest price; that's called "capitalism.""


I thought the whole point of drilling, baby, drilling, was supposed to be to make us energy independent, as well as bring down the price, since the economy runs on energy, as well as needs cheap energy.

CrashisOptimistic's picture

You don't understand what a "boom" is.

You don't have to grow oil output to have a boom.  You don't have to grow gas output to have a boom.

All you have to do is have jobs numbers grow.  If NDak declines to 600K bpd and holds that number for 5 years, requiring more and more workers to hold it there, it will be called a boom.

slightlyskeptical's picture

Forsaking your fellow countrymen so that you can make additional profits is nothing less than treason in my eyes. No different than a spy selling country secrets.


El Vaquero's picture


And what does their track record look like?


JeffB's picture

I don't quite understand how this all fits together.

She's saying we already have tight supply, and demand is rising and has been, but the price is so low that the producers have been "losing our shirts" for quite some time, such that they need to export vast amounts to raise the prices to where they can be profitable.

Is there some other external factor I don't remember seeing in the article that is artificially suppressing the price? If not, why wouldn't the normal "invisible hand" of the free market work to fix those imbalances? Wouldn't a supply that is too low and unable to keep up with rising demand automatically lead to higher prices? If marginal costs are below marginal revenues wouldn't the producers have cut back on production before now?

I'm sure there are other factors involved, but the pieces still don't seem to quite all fit together in a logically cohesive whole for me at the moment.


GooseShtepping Moron's picture

Hi Jeff,

What you're noticing here is the "energy trap" that Peak Oil writers like Gail have been warning about. She has explained it in great detail in several of her articles which are archived at The Oil Drum if you would like to delve into it. I think you'll find it time well spent.

In basic terms, it has to do with the cost of a commodity in dollars vs. its cost in energy. When it takes about as much energy to extract a cubic foot of gas from the ground as you would get from burning the gas, then its cost in dollars is too low to justify extraction. The energy company cannot make a profit because it spends as much on energy as the value of the energy it delivers, and this despite the fact that supplies are tight. It means that there really is no more gas to be produced at the current price level, so production declines, raising prices further. The dollar has to coordinate the price of all goods and services across the entire economy, which means that shortages are additive and price increases in key comodities are distributed throughout the whole system. In order to continue producing gas under those circumstances, production would have to be subsidized, which weakens the economy still further. The net result is a dilemma: Whether we produce more gas or less gas, the economy shrinks either way. In effect, we have reached the limits to growth.

This is what Peak Energy looks like as its effects ripple through the economy. This is how it "plays out."

JeffB's picture

Thanks for the reply, GSM.

It's been awhile since I've been to the Oil Drum, but I do remember reading about the Energy Return on Energy Invested phenomenon there. I do think that the energy crisis they warn of is very real and could potentially be catastrophic for the world.

But the EROI doesn't seem to me as if it fully explains the apparent discrepancy I described.

For one, if that is what is going on, I would have expected her to mention it in this article.

It also seems to me that if it was costing them more, either in energy or in dollars to extract it than what they could get in return they would have quit drilling for it by now... and probably sooner. Why would they continue to keep drilling while "losing our shirts"?

And if there is a shortage, why hasn't the price gone up? Why are companies still substituting natural gas for coal, and why the demand for more natural gas vehicles, and more companies installing natural gas refueling stations around the country? It's still a rather small phenomenon, but if there was a shortage I would think prices should have already responded to ration the available supply to those willing to pay more for it.


FeralSerf's picture

Why don't the drillers use some of that almost free energy that's available in the flared gas?

Bottom line: we're being lied to concerning the true value of NG energy. If the drillers can afford to throw it away to get to the NGL, it must not be worth much.

JeffB's picture

As I understand it that gas is landlocked. There are no pipelines or other infrastructure there to get it to market.

They could ship it via truck, but the cost to do so is greater than the market value once it gets there.


FeralSerf's picture

They could generate electricity with it on-site using portable generator sets.

yt75's picture

I think they do with some of it.

But the key point is : if the liquids extracted make the business profitable, then it makes the business profitable, and if you start it without any way to get the gas out, you flare it, but your business is still profitable.


And building ways to get the gas out would require more investment, that you migth not wish to do (or even not profitable at all, if too long distance too little volume for instance).

Haus-Targaryen's picture

So Russland really could screw with Europe, and no secret transatlantic pipe would do a thing. 

Good to know. 

yt75's picture

The game here is more Qatar wanting its pipeline through Syria to feed Euope much more directly than through LNG and ships.


From the US part it's pure propaganda (or hysterical one)

Gunga's picture

 The Crown exported agriculture products from Ireland during the Great Potato Famine also.  If the people have nothing those that control the natural resources will export to those that can pay the highest price.


CrashisOptimistic's picture

I know that's the popular opinion, but I don't see how that worked in the age before refrigeration.  Where could food be shipped fast enough not to spoil enroute?

FeralSerf's picture

Grain products don't (and didn't) require refrigeration. (Duh)

CrashisOptimistic's picture

Okay that works, I thought the issue was scarce potatoes being shipped.

FeralSerf's picture

Potatoes weren't being exported during the Great Famine in Ireland, grain was.

"Although the potato crop failed, the country was still producing and exporting more than enough grain crops to feed the population. Records show during the period Ireland was exporting approximately thirty to fifty shiploads per day of food produce. As a consequence of these exports and a number of other factors such as land acquisition, absentee landlords and the effect of the 1690 penal laws, the Great Famine today is viewed by a number of historical academics as a form of either direct or indirect genocide."

Totentänzerlied's picture

Potatos (and other tubers), roots, and (dried) grains* keep rather well, for weeks if not months. Shipping to Europe would take a matter of days.

* though I don't believe Ireland (or any part of the Isles except maybe Wales) was ever a major grain producer

FeralSerf's picture

"Throughout the entire period of the Famine, Ireland was exporting enormous quantities of food to England. In Ireland before and after the famine, Cormac O'Grada points out, "Although the potato crop failed, the country was still producing and exporting more than enough grain crops to feed the population. But that was a 'money crop' and not a 'food crop and could not be interfered with." Up to 75 percent of Irish soil was devoted to wheat, oats, barley and other crops that were grown for export and shipped abroad while the people starved."

RagnarDanneskjold's picture

Keep the gas in the United States to lower natural gas prices. This will give the U.S. a competitive advantage in energy costs, which will cause companies that use natural gas as a raw material to relocate to the United States. Instead of exporting cheap natural gas, it can export value added products, while growing the domestic economy.

samsara's picture

"... Instead of exporting cheap natural gas..."

Did you read the article at all?

Dollarmedes's picture

It will also result in a government-captured energy sector full of cronyism, like Venezuela. Production will increase even if it doesn't make economic sense because lower energy prices buy votes. In order to ensure the loyalty of the companies, they will either be stocked with toadies or will be nationalized outright. When political loyalty trumps industrial competence, the system will slowly degrade until it falls apart.


But other than that, it's a great idea.

tonyw's picture

Perhaps the countries that are exporting their oil and gas (and any other products??) to the United States should consider doing the same?