Advanced drilling technologies have given the U.S. more cheap natural gas than it knows what to do with — until now.
A planned $20 billion, multiphase terminal in Cameron Parish is within weeks of cranking out liquefied natural gas onto ships bound for foreign markets, potentially the first of many facilities that could propel the U.S. to become the world’s third-largest LNG exporter by 2020.
That’s if a topsy-turvy energy market and troubled world economy turn back in favor of U.S. LNG exports.
It’s already been a wild ride caused by a reversal of once high-flying oil and natural gas prices.
It wasn’t too many years ago nearly a dozen facilities were built in the lower 48 states to “import” liquefied natural gas bound for utilities and industries clamoring for cheaper natural gas as a fuel source or raw material for products they make.
Then came a technology-driven drilling boom in the U.S. that produced a glut of natural gas — also oil — and took the shine off those facilities’ plans to import LNG.
Now, work is underway to transform four of those import facilities — including two in Louisiana — so they can export U.S.-produced natural gas.
By late February or early March, Cheniere Energy’s terminal on the Sabine River in Cameron Parish is scheduled to be the first in the lower 48 states to ship LNG overseas, a development that experts say will usher in a new era for the U.S. to play a large role in the global gas market.
When work is finished on Cheniere’s six LNG units in 2019, the $20 billion facility is expected to represent the largest capital investment in Louisiana history.
Being first out of the gate is important for Cheniere because already the industry landscape and world market conditions have shifted dramatically since 2010, when the company sought federal approval to convert its LNG import terminal to exports.
The facility is among nearly two dozen others proposed in the U.S., and experts say most of those likely won’t be built amid current market conditions.
At home, natural gas production and storage inventories hit record levels last year, and demand has plunged during this year’s mild winter heating season. Natural gas prices hit a 16-year low, a development that would seem to be good for exporting LNG.
Trouble is, global demand for natural gas is expected to rise only slightly in coming years. A weakened Asian market — once considered a prime customer for U.S. exports — is cramping earlier estimates.
That’s partly because LNG prices in Asia are tied to oil’s fortunes. When Brent crude — a benchmark for international oils — hovered near $110 a barrel in 2011, Asian consumers paid a steep price for natural gas. As a result, some Asian consumers switched to other options to avoid relying too much on the fuel. When crude prices plummeted nearly 70 percent in the past 18 months, so did natural gas prices in Asia, taking away an incentive to buy U.S-produced LNG. Also, Australia has emerged as a much closer LNG supplier to Asia.
To the relief of U.S. exporters, Europe — where natural gas production is down — has emerged as a potential LNG customer, with the region poised to significantly increase its imports in the next four years.
Being the first to begin exports gives Cheniere an edge over its competition, especially because it already has secured 20-year fixed-rate contracts to sell most of its fuel. Trying to broker such deals under current market conditions would be challenging, industry experts say.
“Now that more of these projects are in construction, there is obviously a little more competition,” said Pavel Molchanov, an analyst at Raymond James who follows Cheniere.
Three years ago, when crude prices were higher, natural gas was likewise more expensive in Asian and European markets. “Now, it’s a very different ballgame,” he said. “A year and a half ago, the price of LNG in Asia was about $18 (per million Btu). Now, it’s more like $7.”
Retired LSU economist Loren Scott, who has tracked the region’s economic outlook for decades, said the math favors U.S. LNG exports when oil prices are above $60 a barrel. On Friday, the price dropped to less than $30, the lowest since 2003.
Here’s why higher oil prices help LNG: Countries like Qatar, a top LNG exporter, tie their LNG export prices to oil, typically at 15 percent — meaning that if oil is $100 a barrel, Qatar charges about $15 per million Btu for its natural gas.
But U.S. exports initially are priced off the Henry Hub in Louisiana, then factor in added costs of liquefaction, recovering capital investments and shipping the fuel elsewhere. That can put costs close to about $9.50 per million Btu, giving domestic exporters a competitive edge. However, that advantage begins to disappear as oil prices sink.
Across the U.S., construction is underway on four other LNG export terminals, including in nearby Hackberry, where California-based Sempra Energy is spending $10 billion on a five-unit facility that’s expected to be finished by 2019. One of the others is being built by Cheniere in Corpus Christi, Texas.
Overall, the five facilities — including Cheniere’s Texas project, which is not being built on the site of an existing LNG terminal — are a fraction of the nearly two dozen export terminals that have been proposed throughout the U.S. Industry experts say it’s unlikely any of the others will make it to the finish line before the early 2020s.
Oil’s sharp fall has given pause to many of the other LNG export projects, Scott said, prompting developers to “take their foot off the accelerator and start at least tapping on the brake a little bit until they see where the price of oil really settles.”
By 2020, assuming the five export terminals are built, the facilities are projected to have the capacity to export more than 12 percent of domestic natural gas production, the U.S. Government Accountability Office said in a report last month.
Industry analysts and experts believe the long-term success of the export terminals will depend on whether energy companies can lock up long-term contracts to market the fuel at a fixed price.
“We’re kind of going through phase 2 of this, and we’ve got these big promises of a big, integrated global market, but it’s going to be interesting to see how that plays out over time,” said David Dismukes, executive director of the LSU Center for Energy Studies.
The massive cost of the Cheniere project was offset somewhat by lucrative local and state tax incentives. A 2013 study by Good Jobs First, a nonprofit that tracks corporate subsidies across the country, reported that the project was among the nation’s top recipients of tax breaks, a finding highlighted by The Advocate in “Giving Away Louisiana,” an eight-part series in 2014 on state tax giveaways.
The state approved nearly $1.6 billion in property tax relief for Cheniere, in addition to $117 million in workforce training costs and payroll rebates. About 150 new jobs paying $100,000 each are expected to result.
Scott, in his annual economic outlook report, said the Lake Charles region had nearly $85 billion worth of projects either under construction or in development as of last fall, creating a huge boom for industrial construction workers, with nearly 7,400 jobs expected to be created in 2016 and another 2,000 jobs in 2017.
Clair Hebert Marceaux, Cameron Parish’s economic development director, is aware of all the attention, saying, “Global eyes are watching our very rural parish” to see how the project turns out.
Cameron, a parish of about 6,700 residents, has had a spike in economic activity, and some businesses — such as convenience stores and restaurants — have enjoyed a sharp uptick in customers. In fact, Marceaux said the parish has more construction workers daily than residents who live there.
“We understand that there’s tremendous opportunities for locals, even if we just get crumbs, which I’m certainly not hoping for,” she said.
Despite Cameron’s rapid growth, parish leaders are committed to moving forward at their own pace.
“This is an extremely rural area,” Marceaux said. “We like it that way. We enjoy our remoteness. So although we have intentions and visions to enhance the parish, it’s going to be on our terms.”
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.