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The Evolution of American Natural Gas in the 21st Century

Today’s Energy Update
(Because Energy Fuels Our Lives)

The Evolution of American Natural Gas in the 21st Century

[This is the cover story for the new issue of Shale Magazine, where I serve as editor, a story that I really enjoyed researching and writing, since I’ve lived through all of it.  If you want to know how and why our amazing natural gas resource has developed during this century, and the potential for its further development in the coming decades, please give it a read. Thanks!]

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In the summer of 2002, the National Petroleum Council (NPC) gathered together some of the smartest minds from the oil and gas industry, academia and in the environmental community to study the potential for natural gas in North America. The study lasted for the better part of a year, after which a report titled “Balancing Natural Gas Policy – Fueling the Demands of a Growing Economy” was released.

As we sit here 16 years later, reviewing the findings of this study in light of the current situation where natural gas in North America and globally is concerned is a fascinating exercise — one that demonstrates the challenges presented to even the most informed and intelligent people when it comes to making accurate projections about how the oil and gas industry will evolve in years to come.

oil and gas processing industry. rectification column and storage of finished productI personally chaired one of several subcommittees that were established to conduct various aspects of this study, led by ExxonMobil and Burlington Resources, which was my employer at the time. When the study was issued, those of us who had worked on it were quite proud of it and were firm in our belief that it would stand the test of time, providing an accurate roadmap for the public and policymakers to use as a guidepost for years to come.

Providing such guidance is, after all, the role of the NPC, a federal advisory committee that reports directly to the U.S. Secretary of Energy. The NPC’s own website describes its role, in part, as follows:

The National Petroleum Council (NPC), a federally chartered and privately funded advisory committee, was established by the Secretary of the Interior in 1946 at the request of President Harry S Truman. In 1977, the U.S. Department of Energy was established and the NPC’s functions were transferred to the new Department. The purpose of the NPC is solely to advise, inform, and make recommendations to the Secretary of Energy with respect to any matter relating to oil and natural gas or to the oil and gas industries submitted to it or approved by the Secretary. The NPC does not concern itself with trade practices, nor does it engage in any of the usual trade association activities.

Even though the NPC had conducted a natural gas-related study in 1999, incoming Bush Administration Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham felt that the situation had shifted significantly enough by 2002 to warrant another look. It is important to keep in mind that, when the request came down from Secretary Abraham, natural gas was a commodity in short supply and subject to huge price swings. Because a large percentage of our country’s production came out of the Gulf of Mexico, it was also subject to being significantly interrupted by major hurricane events.

Large liquefied natural gas (LNG) carrier with 4 LNG tanks sails along the sea

In 2002, the Barnett Shale was the only major natural gas-bearing shale formation that had been discovered. The Barnett was in the early stages of its development, and the industry had little understanding of its ultimate potential. Nor did any of the experts assembled by the NPC for its new study have any inkling of the magnitude of domestic natural gas resource that would be discovered in massive reserves trapped inside formations with names like Marcellus, Haynesville, Bakken, Eagle Ford, Spraberry, Woodford and Wolfcamp.

One of the most popular bits of conventional wisdom said about any economic study is “garbage in, garbage out.” Our base of information for the 2002 NPC study wasn’t “garbage” — the information we had was high-quality, but it was also very limited. The study by its very nature had to be based on available data, and the data available at the time indicated that North American natural gas production through the year 2025 would be characterized by limited domestic output, rising imports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) coming into the country on huge tanker ships, and high commodity prices as a result.

It should come as no surprise that the study’s findings, some of which we will review here as examples, reflected this general outlook.

Every study based on economic analyses will include multiple cases that produce differing outcomes. Typically, these are described as a “base case” which assumes a status quo of outside-influencing factors going forward, an aggressive case that assumes some set of positive changes, and possibly even a non-aggressive case that assumes a set of negative changes.

One of the big decisions the NPC study committee had to make revolved around how many cases to include and how to structure them. In the end, the decision was made to include:

• “Balanced Future” case in which U.S. energy policy would evolve in ways that would encourage the development of new natural gas resources and the building-out of adequate midstream infrastructure and LNG import facilities; and

• “Reactive Path” case in which energy policy evolves, but mainly in reaction to various negative events such as shortages of supply or crises caused by lack of adequate infrastructure.

Given that background and knowledge about how the study was structured, the fact that most of the findings produced in our report have turned out be quite inaccurate should come as no surprise. Here are a few of them taken from the study’s Executive Summary:

• From page 32-33: “Given the relatively low production rates from non-conventional wells, the analysis further suggests that even in a robust future price environment, industry will be challenged to maintain overall production at its current level. This conclusion is reached even though new discoveries in mature North American basins represent the largest contribution to future supplies of any component of this supply outlook.”

• From page 33: “The NPC estimates that production from the lower 48 states and non-Arctic Canada can meet 75 percent of U.S. demand through 2025. However, these indigenous supplies will be unable to meet the projected natural gas demand.”

• From page 52: Price Projections: The NPC “Balanced Future” case projected a 2019 average price of between $3.20 and $5.00 per mmbtu. Its “Reactive Path” case projected a price range of $5.00 to about $6.90.

• From page 63: “To meet future demand, the NPC is projecting LNG imports will grow to become 14-17 percent of the U.S. natural gas supply by 2025. This will require the construction of seven to nine new regasification terminals and expansions of three of the four existing terminals.”

Of course, with the benefit of 16 years of hindsight, we now know that none of these key projections have come to fruition. For example, where prices are concerned, today’s natural gas producers can only long for a price per mmbtu of even $3.20, much less long-forgotten levels of $5.00 or $6.90.

LNG TANKER - Ship at dawn moored to the gas terminal

Far from being challenged to maintain overall current production levels, today’s natural gas industry struggles with finding adequate areas of demand to which to move their product, even as the number of active drilling rigs exploring for natural gas resources has fallen from 1,600 as recently as 2012 to around 130 at the first of 2019. In a way, producers are victims of their own expertise, having become so adept at maximizing volumes from each new well, that they threaten to oversupply the market―even with a dramatically-reduced rig count.

The nature of the shale plays discovered since 2003 has also played a large role in creating this new reality for gas producers. It’s not just the massive resource contained in natural gas plays like the Haynesville and Marcellus keeping the gas rig count low — it’s also the amazing volumes of methane flowing out of what are classified as oil wells being drilled in the Bakken, Eagle Ford and the Permian Basin. A little-recognized fact of life in today’s U.S. oil patch is that the oil-heavy Permian Basin is now the second-largest producer of natural gas in North America, behind only the Marcellus/Utica Basin.

Simply put: Today’s biggest problem for natural gas producers is not a lack of supply, but lack of demand.

It’s important to recognize that this sea-change in the supply/demand equation for domestic natural gas has taken place during a period of time when demand for natural gas has increased significantly. In 2003, Americans and American businesses consumed about 22.7 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of natural gas, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). By 2017, overall U.S. consumption had grown to 27.1 tcf, an increase of 20 percent.

More to the point, demand for natural gas over that period of time rose in all of its key demand sectors: It was up in power generation, up in home heating use, up in chemicals and plastics and all other key manufacturing uses. Indeed, the phenomenal new abundance of natural gas supply and the chronic low prices that abundance has produced has played a significant role in the ongoing renaissance of manufacturing in the U.S., making the country globally competitive in that space for the first time in several decades.

This newly-found abundance may be a curse to natural gas producers and their bottom lines, but it has been a true blessing to the country.

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Today’s news moves at a faster pace than ever. Whatfinger.com is my go-to source for keeping up with all the latest events in real time.

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The Oil And Gas Situation: A Transition In Fundamentals For 2019

Today’s Energy Update
(Because Energy Fuels Our Lives)

A couple of interesting studies have come across my desk in recent days that merit noting. Taken together, they paint a picture of a domestic shale oil and gas industry that is relatively healthy and will only grow healthier throughout 2019 as it benefits from stronger commodity prices.

Will oil inventories hit a record deficit later this year? – That’s what the partners at the Goehring and Rozencwajg investment firm think. In their March 15 analysis, they estimate that stronger-than-projected global demand for crude, combined with the full implementation of promised export cuts by the OPEC-plus countries will result in a significant drop in global crude inventories over the course of this year.

The report correctly notes the habit of the International Energy Agency (IEA) of underestimating global crude demand growth in its initial annual projections. The IEA has had to revise its initial estimates upwards in seven of the last eight years by an average of about half a million barrels of oil per day (bopd) . The firm assumes this trend will continue for 2019, and that IEA’s estimate of demand growth for 2019 is understated by 500,000 bopd.

The report also criticizes the IEA for its rosy projection that production growth for the non-OPEC countries outside of the U.S and Russia will grow by 120,000 bopd during 2019, a projection Goehring and Rozencwajg believe is “simply not possible. Instead, given the severe recent weakness in this group, we believe this number may actually decline by 300,000 b/d” during 2019. Taken together, the firm believes the IEA is overly-pessimistic in its estimates by a total of 920,000 bopd.

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Follow me on Twitter at @GDBlackmon

Today’s news moves at a faster pace than ever. Whatfinger.com is my go-to source for keeping up with all the latest events in real time.

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While Politics Dominates The News, Big Oil Invests In Global Energy Reality

One of the big concerns during the depths of the oil price bust of 2014-2016 was the fact that so many big, integrated and state-run oil companies were delaying or taking a full pass on investing in major and highly-costly international projects. During the financial retrenchment of this dark period, exploration for major new resources consistently took a back seat to finding ways to pay the bills and service the company’s debt.

This lack of investment in new exploration and infrastructure projects led to concerns among many energy analysts that we could be facing a shortage of global supply early in the next decade as decline rates caused existing reserves to play out without the needed new production coming on line to replace them.  The surge in new supply from U.S. shale plays has served to alleviate those concerns for the near-term, and a new report issued by the Norwegian research firm Rystad Energy documents a similar surge in new international investments that should help avoid supply shortages further down the road.

“We expect global FID volumes in 2019 to triple over last year, and 2019’s megaproject awards could lead to billions of subcontracting dollars in coming years,” said Rystad Energy upstream research analyst Readul Islam, “The only supply segment likely to shrink this year is the oil sands, whereas deepwater, offshore shelf and other conventional onshore developments are all poised to show substantial growth. From a geographical perspective, all regions are headed for robust growth except Europe and North America, still bearing in mind that shale plays are not included in these numbers.”

That last point – that shale plays are not included in this report – is key. As I pointed out last week, the Permian Basin has become a focal point for major development not just for big independents like Pioneer Natural Resources, Noble Energy, Apache Corporation and others, but also for major, integrated companies like ExxonMobil, BP, Shell and Chevron. These U.S. shale plays are likely to sustain significant production growth for years to come, giving the big investments documented by Rystad in its report the running room they need to move from final investment decisions to first production, which can easily consume five-to-seven years.

So, if you’ve been wondering why all those stories about concerns of a looming supply crunch on the horizon have disappeared from your daily news clips, this is the reason.

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Peak Oil Theory’s No Good Terrible Very Bad Week

Just when you thought continued belief in any of the various brands of “Peak Oil” theory could hardly become less sustainable, you get a week like this one. No matter whether you come at Peak Oil from the supply side or the demand side, several events this week would have had to put you in a definitively sour mood.

Starting off this “No Good Terrible Very Bad” week for the Peak Oilers, UN International Energy Agency (IEA) Executive Director Fatih Birol debunked a popular piece of the demand side of the theory.  Speaking to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland on January 22, Birol told the delegates that “To say that the electric car is the end of oil is definitely misleading.” Oh.

Birol expanded on that theme by adding emphatically that “Cars are not the driver of oil demand growth. Full stop.” Birol made things even more problematic for those who wish to dramatically accelerate the displacement of internal combustion cars with EVs via massive subsidies for environmental reasons by pointing to the fact that EVs in fact do little to reduce emissions, pointing to the fact that most of the electricity globally is still generated using coal and other fossil fuels. “Where does the electricity come from, to say that electric cars are a solution to our climate change problem? It is not,” he said.

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Crude And LNG Export Facilities Work To Solve Bottlenecks Before They Can Start

Several recent big items of positive news relating to exports of oil and LNG along the Texas Gulf Coast might come just in time to help allay fears of new, downstream bottlenecks for production coming out of the Permian Basin and Eagle Ford Shale plays.

The current bottleneck, of course, involves a lack of needed pipeline takeaway capacity for oil and gas coming out of the Permian Basin. But a dozen or more pipeline expansions and new-build projects currently in progress promise to quickly alleviate that situation during the course of 2019 and 2020. The vast majority of takeaway capacity in these projects will be designed to move the production to ports along the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coast, with several of the lines picking up crude and natural gas produced in the Eagle Ford along the way.

This outlook has in recent weeks produced a new concern that, as those new pipelines get filled up with more and more volumes coming out of West and South Texas, new bottlenecks could materialize related to the capacity along the Gulf Coast to refine and export the production. Several recent developments in the Corpus Christi area hold the promise of heading the potential new bottlenecks off before the can form.

Where natural gas is concerned, Cheniere Energy this week was able to load its first shipment of LNG out of its new Corpus Christi LNG terminal . The Maria Energy tanker, which has a capacity of 174,000 cubic meters of LNG, left the terminal with a full load on December 11, the first load of LNG to ever ship out of a Texas-based facility. “Exporting the first commissioning cargo of LNG from Texas demonstrates Cheniere’s ability to deliver projects safely and ahead of schedule, including the first greenfield LNG export facility in the lower 48 states,” Cheniere chief executive Jack Fusco said.

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STEER: A Business Model That Works

It was great to be able to write this issue’s cover feature on the South Texas Energy & Economic Roundtable (STEER) and its outstanding staff, including President and CEO Omar Garcia. Watching the organization have so much success has been very rewarding, since I played a minor role in its creation back in 2012; and writing the piece provided a chance to reflect on the STEER business model and why the oil and gas industry should try to replicate it in other parts of the country.

By late 2011, it had become obvious to everyone that the Eagle Ford Shale was a world-class resource that represented an unprecedented opportunity for economic development in South Texas. Shortly after a lunch during which I and a group of colleagues talked about how best to go about protecting this opportunity, I got on a conference call with the Haynesville Shale Operators’ Committee (HSOC). This coincidence of timing was what spurred my involvement in the germination of STEER.

HSOC was the brainchild of the Louisiana Oil & Gas Association (LOGA) and its President, Don Briggs. Created during the height of the development of the Haynesville Shale natural gas development, the organization served as an extremely effective voice for the industry in what was at the time the busiest shale development region of the country. The challenge the Haynesville Shale presented to LOGA was its concentration in the northwest corner of the state, hundreds of miles from the state capital of Baton Rouge, where LOGA’s offices were located.

Rather than have its staff constantly travel back and forth between Baton Rouge and Shreveport to help its members address community and regulatory issues, LOGA came up with the model of establishing a committee within its organizational structure that essentially functioned as a separate trade association. To become members of HSOC, companies paid separate dues, and the committee itself had its own separate staff.

To further distinguish HSOC as a separate entity, the HSOC staff seldom became engaged in the single most crucial role of any state trade association — lobbying the state’s legislature. Instead, HSOC focused on helping members with community and media relations, functions that have not traditionally been strong points for the industry’s legacy associations.

The model worked. HSOC was a tremendous asset for producers, the media and communities in the region, all of whom needed an honest-broker intermediary to help understand and communicate with one another.

Seeing no reason why this model wouldn’t work just as well in South Texas — where the sudden, massive growth in oil and gas activity was very predictably creating lots of friction and challenges in the local communities — I took the idea to Rob Looney, then-President of the Texas Oil & Gas Association (TXOGA), one of the industry’s largest trade associations, headquartered in Austin. My involvement ended there, since I had a conflicting role with one of the industry’s national trade associations at that time.

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STEER: A New Kind of Trade Association

A Sleeping Giant Beneath The Chalk

Nestled in a quiet area of suburban Dallas, just off the intersection of Texas State Highway 12 and Interstate 30, lies the neighborhood of Eagle Ford. At one time an incorporated city, Eagle Ford was annexed in the mid-1950s by the city of Dallas, whose city center skyscrapers can be seen just 6 miles away.

Originally settled by the family of Enoch Horton in 1844, the community soon became known as an important crossing of the West Fork of the Trinity River. The Horton family established a grist mill; and within a few years they donated land to establish the town’s first cemetery and for the right of way and depot for the Texas and Pacific Railway. As was the case for hundreds of communities in Texas’ early decades, the establishment of a rail depot led quickly to rapid population growth. By the 1870s, Eagle Ford had become a key shipping point for the cattle industry, and its population had grown to several thousand.

The death of the trail drives led to the collapse of the cattle business, and by the 1890s, Eagle Ford’s population hovered around 50 citizens, where it remained well into the mid-20th century. Memory of the community’s heyday was largely lost to history, where it remained until late 2008.

Not far from the location of the original Horton grist mill, a small cliff face reveals an out-cropping of the Austin Chalk formation, which had become famous during the 1970s and again in the 1990s for the production of prodigious amounts of crude oil. Indeed, the Chalk is experiencing a bit of a third revival today.

Immediately beneath the Chalk outcropping, another formation displays what seems to be a rocky, clay-like profile. This formation is actually a shale formation, one that happens to be the source rock for the Austin Chalk. It was the oil migrating up from the Eagle Ford that made the Chalk such a prodigious formation to begin with.

Like the Austin Chalk, the Eagle Ford Shale extends deep into South Texas and even under the Rio Grande into northern Mexico. Unlike the Chalk, however, this formation had received scant attention until October 2008, when Petrohawk (now a part of BHP Billiton) drilled what is credited as the first commercial horizontal well completed in the formation in La Salle County. The well, completed with a 3,200-foot horizontal lateral involving a 10-stage frac job, produced at an initial flow rate of about 7,600 MMBTU of natural gas per day, and the race was on.

 

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The Eagle Ford Shale Finally Gets A Little Media Love

For most of the past year, the ongoing boom in the Permian Basin has sucked all the oxygen out of the room in terms of media reporting on the oil and gas industry in Texas.  The mergers and acquisitions frenzy of 2016 raised per-acre acquisition costs to $40,000, and that in turn led a rapid rise in the Permian’s rig count and subsequent drilling boom to take advantage of the higher oil prices that came about at the end of the year.  That story, which has resulted in the Permian’s becoming not only the nation’s largest oil producing basin, but also it’s second largest natural gas producing basin (more on that next week), is very compelling and needed to be told.

But the last year has seen another compelling growth story come about in the state’s other major oil play, the Eagle Ford Shale region of South Texas.  It’s a story in which the region’s rig count has more than tripled in a year, from less than 30 to more than 90, in which new-well productivity has more than doubled in less than two years, and in which the economic driver that turned this historically poor region into the nation’s hottest economic development area from 2011 thru mid-2014 has begun to rise again.

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