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An emerging player – Louisiana could see additional jobs, new market prospects and increased tax revenue as a result of export opportunities.

When it comes to natural gas, the United States has been largely an importer. But export is the new game, and Louisiana is emerging as the biggest player.

Cheniere Energy, which owns the Sabine Pass Terminal in Cameron Parish, received the go-ahead in May from the U.S. Department of Energy to export liquefied natural gas to any company not prohibited by law.

That made Sabine Pass, which opened in 2008 as a terminal to take in shipments from overseas, the first bidirectional LNG facility in the country, capable of importing and exporting the super-chilled liquid.

Cheniere announced last fall that it would invest $6.5 billion in the Sabine Pass terminal—located less than four miles from the Gulf of Mexico on the widest point on the Sabine River navigation channel—marking one of the largest capital investments in Louisiana. Construction on the new facility will begin this year, with new, permanent employees being hired in 2014.

The company will open the liquefaction facility in 2015, and the second phase of the project is expected to be completed by the end of 2018. It has already signed three long-term contracts for those future exports.

A few months after that announcement came word that Lake Charles Exports, a subsidiary of Houston-based Southern Union Co. and BG Group, received approval to ship exports from its Trunkline terminal. Trunkline was authorized to import LNG in the late 1970s and opened in 1981.

BG Group is one of the top 10 natural gas marketers in the country, with major interests in the Haynesville and Marcellus shale plays, as well as other production in Louisiana. Southern Union’s preliminary cost estimate to modify its terminal to liquefy about 2 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day is estimated at $2 billion to $3 billion.

Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association President Chris John says it wasn’t too long ago when companies were investing billions of dollars building massive facilities to import natural gas into the state. The business model now is reversed, and companies are remaking their capabilities.

“The need and demand for natural gas in the United States was projected to grow, and we didn’t have enough of it,” he says. “Boy, has that all taken a 180-degree turn. The needle on the natural gas industry has gone from ‘we don’t have enough of it’ to now ‘we’re awash in it.’”

Louisiana Economic Development Secretary Stephen Moret says the state expects to see even more massive capital investment projects associated with the Haynesville Shale announced over the next few years.

“The economic benefits of historically low, stable natural gas prices in Louisiana have only begun to be realized,” he says.

The expanded harvesting of shale formations in Louisiana and elsewhere in the country has led to an oversupply of natural gas, making exports more attractive. Six LNG export proposals around the country currently are awaiting approval from regulators as producers look for ways to move their low-cost gas overseas.

In 2010, the latest year for which statistics are available, marketed production of natural gas reached 22.7 million cubic feet, the highest recorded total since 1973. Storage inventories reached a record 3,847 billion cubic feet. And the average natural gas rig count rose 18% over the previous year, from 799 to 942, according to the Energy Information Administration’s Natural Gas Annual.

Technological advances in drilling and well-completion techniques continue to push the break-even point of production down, making it economical despite low prices. Even as the focus has shifted away from drilling solely for natural gas, increased interest in drilling the shale plays for oil still results in natural gas as a byproduct, continuing to add to the glut in the market.

Not surprisingly, imports have reached a 16-year low, accounting for just 11% of the nation’s natural gas consumption. At the same time, LNG exports—mostly to Canada—doubled in 2010.

“The main reason for the shift itself has been this big supply growth that is not being met adequately, at least domestically, with a corresponding increase in demand for natural gas,” says David Dismukes, associate director and professor at the LSU Center for Energy Studies. “Right now, we’re at record supply production levels, and the conventional wisdom, at least in the near term, is that those levels aren’t going down. Export becomes the next-best alternative.”

If planned liquefied natural gas conversion projects happen, U.S. exports could have significant impact on world energy politics, with Louisiana likely the biggest player, at least early on.

“It’s good for us,” John says. “The more that we become exporters of natural gas, the more the demand is going to increase, which obviously the price follows. And once the price follows, you’ll see increased activity amongst all of these shale plays. It’s very good for our industry that we are finding different markets, and it’s an incredible turnaround for the United States to be an energy exporter in the field of natural gas.”

The nation could end up exporting as much as one-fifth of its gas, roughly 12 billion cubic feet of gas per day—equivalent to almost 90% of European sales from Russia, the world’s largest exporter, according to the World Fact Book.

Demand for America’s natural gas exports is expected to be high. Japanese imports to replace nuclear power after the Fukushima Daiichi disaster are already at record levels, and the country’s acceptance of new plants is expected to wane. There’s also been a 27% jump in China’s first-half purchases. Western Europe and India continue to rely heavily on imports, particularly from Russia and the former Soviet republics.

At the same time, the world’s spare production capacity shrank about 50% this year as consumption grew, and is projected to continue declining through 2014.

Dismukes says the fact that many entities have been willing to sign long-term contracts years before the export facilities are even operating indicates “there’s a genuine and bona fide interest in this and people are willing to put their money where their mouth is on it.”

What it means for Louisiana is, of course, additional jobs, new market opportunities for in-state producers and additional tax revenue for communities where the export facilities are located, among other benefits.

There also are all those pipelines needed to move the natural gas to the export terminals. John says the industry is already seeing an enormous amount of projects on the book of networking a lot of the plays into major pipelines that are already in existence.

“From a standpoint of surveyors, welders and all of the workforce that is needed to lay pipelines, that is frankly exploding right now across Louisiana and from there, connecting all over the country,” he says. “You are seeing a lot of preparations in anticipation of the growth of all this natural gas. The future is very bright for Louisiana.”

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