How Big Is LNG Opportunity for U.S. Natural Gas Industry?
Over the past decade, fracking technology has driven unprecedented growth in American natural gas production. Gas now powers 40% of U.S. electricity generation, and is also the most important fuel for home heating. And the U.S. is on track to become the world’s number one exporter of liquified natural gas in 2022, as Asia and Europe compete to pay top dollar for shipments of LNG.
On the face of things, the outlook couldn’t be better for U.S. gas producers. Yet, the industry’s dramatic growth coincides with an accelerating shift toward clean energy technology, growing investor ESG concerns around the use of natural gas, and political division over gas exports. Gas producers must now weigh near term market opportunity against these longer term risks.
Robert Johnston, managing director of Eurasia Group’s Energy, Climate and Resources practice, and a research scholar at Columbia University’s Center for Global Energy Policy, discusses the complex range of domestic and global dynamics that are shaping the future of the U.S. natural gas industry.
Andy Stone: Welcome to the Energy Policy Now podcast from the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. I’m Andy Stone.
This is an age of huge opportunity and also great risk for the U.S. natural gas industry. Over the past decade, fracking technology has driven unprecedented growth in American natural gas production. Today gas powers 40% of U.S. electricity generation and is also the most important fuel for home heating. This year, the U.S. is on track to become the world’s number one exporter of liquefied natural gas, as Asia and Europe compete to pay top dollar for shipments of LNG. On the face of things, the outlook couldn’t be better for U.S. gas producers, yet the industry’s dramatic growth coincides with an accelerating shift toward clean energy technology, growing investor ESG concerns around the use of natural gas, and political division over gas exports. As a result, gas producers have generally shown restraint when it comes to new investment in gas resources, as they’ve weighed near-term market opportunity against these longer-term risks.
Here to talk about the complex range of domestic and global dynamics that are shaping the U.S. natural gas industry is my guest, Robert Johnston. Robert is Managing Director of Eurasia Group’s Energy, Climate & Resources Practice, and he is a Research Scholar at Columbia University’s Center for Global Energy Policy. Robert, welcome to the podcast.
Robert Johnston: Thank you. It’s great to be with you this morning.
Stone: So let’s start with a basic question about the natural gas market. According to data from the United States Energy Administration or the EIA, domestic U.S. demand for natural gas has flattened and is expected to continue to fall. This seems a bit surprising, given the massive demand shift toward gas over the past decade, plus. What’s driving this current decline in U.S. gas demand?
Johnston: I think there are a couple of things going on here. First of all, gas demand in the industrial and power sector in the U.S. has been stimulated, I would say, by low prices, which in turn have been driven by abundant supply of shale gas for really about a decade now. If you go back to 2010, the economy in the U.S. was using about 22 trillion cubic feet a year of natural gas. And now in 2021, we’re up to about 30 trillion cubic feet a year. So I think one factor to consider here is that the level of demand growth would be hard to sustain.
A second thing to consider, which I think is actually probably quite central to the EIA forecast that you mentioned is that in the power sector, of course, there is an expectation in that forecast that renewable power, i.e. wind and solar, will further displace natural gas generation in the years ahead. Right now we look at the sectoral breakdown of natural gas demand. About one-third to one-half, depending on the time of year, of U.S. gas consumption is from the electric power sector. And what’s happening, of course, is that wind and solar are getting lower cost. Their capacity factor and utilization is increasing, which is eating into the capacity factor and utilization for natural gas.
Now when you look at the forecast for demand in the future, I think a lot will depend on how the industry and the government manage the challenges around interconnectivity on the grid, any intermittency of renewables, but the expectation is that more renewables will be penetrated, and that will displace gas. And I think the last thing to consider on the demand side is the elasticity of prices. I think right now, the last 18 months or so of higher Henry Hub prices might be slowing demand in the short-term, as well. It weakens industrial demand, certainly not as much here in the U.S. as we’ve seen in Europe, but it also here in the U.S. can drive some fuel-switching to coal in the power sector, as well. On the other hand, of course, those higher prices should be encouraging supply growth, as well.
Stone: Yes, so on the short-term, from the demand side here in the United States, I guess you have some increase in coal generation lately because gas has gotten more expensive, but in the longer term, it looks like renewables are having an impact — a yet-to-be-determined final impact, but impact on demand for gas generation. Is that right?
Johnston: Yes, I think it’s no longer a question of cost and whether renewables compete with natural gas. Solar and wind costs have come down a lot. It is competitive with natural gas. The real question is: What do you do when you don’t have the solar resource and the wind resource available? And how do you create a structure so that gas can be the firming capacity, or is it going to be something else like batteries or hydrogen? And those things are not really at scale yet.
So I think that’s the question. Renewables have become much cheaper. There’s a strong policy momentum federally and in many states to increase their penetration even further, but until you really solve this problem of intermittency and the backup generation, whether it’s through grid connection or batteries or more natural gas, that’s going to be a constraint on exactly how much renewable penetration we can get.
Stone: Now globally, demand for gas has risen quite dramatically, particularly in Asia and in Europe. To give us some perspective, can you give us insight into the global drivers of gas demand and how they mirror or differ from the situation here in the United States?
Johnston: Yes, that’s a great question because gas demand is not the same everywhere, and I think the global growth drivers are quite different, especially in Asia. If you look at Asia over the last few years, the big story, I think, for gas has been the so-called “gasification” of the Chinese economy. And that’s not happening as much in the power sector, but much more so in commercial and residential heating. So now when you have a cold winter in China, that really means more LNG is going to go to China than you would have seen 5 or 10 years ago because they’re using less coal for heat in small, residential boilers and furnaces and commercial boilers and furnaces and trying to build out more gas distribution.
China is a big gas importer, as we know, so that’s been a key trend. Now when you look at the rest of Asia, gas is also gaining market share versus coal in Southeast Asia, but those markets, I think, are much more price-sensitive than China is. So when LNG prices are high like they are now, they tend to default to coal, and coal certainly has a lot of domestic political support in countries like Indonesia and India, which is a factor, as well. But nonetheless, I think gas is gaining market share there.
Now, if we look at the E.U., I think the biggest factor there is really carbon pricing, which we don’t have in the U.S. Carbon allowance prices are 80, 90 euros, which obviously is very significant, and that really helps displace coal and helps natural gas and renewables, of course. But the challenges right now — gas is already expensive because of some of the supply tightness in Russia in global LNG. So the combination of that high carbon price and higher LNG prices makes for high power and gas prices in the E.U.
Stone: Yes, so I think to tie this first little section of our conversation together, as I mentioned in the intro, this year the United States is expected to become the number one exporter of LNG. To relate that international demand back to what’s happening here in this country, how global is the overall demand picture in the U.S.? Or to state it another way, when we look at producers and how much gas they’re producing, how much are they dependent upon global demand for their businesses?
Johnston: I think for the businesses of today, global demand is not critical. You would have said it has absolutely no relevance 5 or 10 years ago, but now that the U.S. is exporting 10 billion cubic feet a day or so of gas, certainly that global demand has a big factor and it drives kind of high utilization of our LNG capacity, but that’s sort of dwarfed by the overall market which is seven or eight times bigger than the export market is.
So I’d say the global factors are gaining significance, and they are pulling that U.S. LNG out, especially U.S. LNG that’s on spot-market basis. But overwhelmingly, the key factors are still the domestic factors in the U.S., which really are number one, heating and cooling, which is weather. Number two, electricity demand and the role of natural gas versus other fuels. And then number three, the sort of general economy and industrial demand in manufacturing and fertilizer and things like that that are critical.
So those factors, I think domestically are still more important than global, but as we continue to add LNG capacity, the global factors will become more important.
Stone: So as you just mentioned, LNG could become much more important in the future to U.S. producers. When we look at the LNG market, there are so many conflicting forces that seem to be at play, particularly when you look at the global market, obviously. And there’s the possibility that the demand for LNG and U.S. LNG overseas may be tempered by ESG concerns — either ESG concerns that we see here domestically, or ESG concerns globally. I think it was a little bit over a year ago in France, a 7 billion-dollar deal to import U.S. LNG was canceled, over concerns around methane emissions associated with U.S. gas.
So in your view, what is the role of policy here in the United States, as well as in other places, on the growth of demand for U.S. LNG?
Johnston: Yes, it’s extremely significant, both on the demand side internationally and on the supply side here in the U.S. So to start with the supply side discussion, I think a big question is: To what extent will the Biden administration continue to support further development of new LNG exports and help them get through the permitting process? Now I think the current gas crisis and high energy prices in the U.S. and Europe are probably steering the Biden administration towards maybe a more pragmatic stance, but there are a number of factors that could shape new LNG supply. Some are upstream, like the proposed pause on leasing for oil and gas on federal lands and waters. Some are midstream, right? They’re processed for approving new pipelines and liquefaction in gas storage facilities, particularly if they use the so-called “social cost of carbon analysis” to effectively penalize or put a shadow carbon price on new projects.
And then, of course, on the demand side, there’s going to be the question of in the European market with the E.U. taxonomy, there are guidelines for sustainable finance. Is gas going to be included? And now it looks like it will be, at least through 2030. And then as I mentioned, in Asia, policies around displacing coal in China in the residential heating and commercial sector, replacing coal-fired power plants with gas in places like Thailand or India — those policy factors will have a huge role, as well.
So yes, overall I think both from the supply side and the demand side, policy will play a really big role for the U.S. LNG sector.
Stone: So policy does seem to be positively aligned for demand going forward. Here, looking at the producers in the United States, despite the fact that gas prices have been high, gas producers have limited their investments into new capacity. Lately, though, I have to note that this morning, I read an article that said that Exxon and Chevron are planning new gas investments in the Permian Basin. Can you break down the categories of producers of gas here in the United States and explain how and why they are reacting to higher natural gas pricing and demand?
Johnston: Yes, absolutely. I would start with the independents, and I would include Canada, as well. I think there’s a sort of integrated North American market. The independent gas-focused E&P companies — exploration and production companies — have done quite well over the last year or two, post-COVID, or at least post the worst of the lockdowns. EQT has bounced back quite well. Now they are very focused on decarbonization, especially of their Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions. So Scope 1 is the direct emissions associated with upstream operations, and the methane flaring can be a big factor there, for sure. And then Scope 2 is the electricity they use or energy they use to power their operations. So trying to get that more geared to renewables, as well.
So for those companies, I think they have low-methane intensity. They’ve really cleaned up their balance sheets. They have lots of reserves. The biggest risk I see for them is not access to capital, but much more so access to take-away capacity. And I think that’s really true in terms of the Eastern U.S. and the Marcellus, where there are a lot of problems getting pipelines built. And then also in Western Canada, as well, pipelines to the mid-Continent market into the export market on the West Coast.
So that’s a challenge for the independents, I think. The ones that can decarbonize should have lots of capital and be able to grow if they can find the pipelines and take-away capacity. You mentioned the super-majors. Generally they are less focused on North American gas these days, especially the European super-majors which have divested quite a bit from where they were 5 or 10 years ago. The larger U.S. super-majors, I think are looking at LNG. They’re also looking at — you mentioned the Permian gas that historically has been flared. You know, these companies are making commitments to zero flaring, right? And so as part of that, they have to develop a gas-gathering and processing infrastructure, and that will create new gas markets there that will likely support more LNG exports.
Then there’s a third group of companies that I would say are the sort of private equity-backed smaller players that have had a difficult time. And I don’t follow those ones as closely, but it does seem to me that the private equity firms themselves that are dedicated to energy are back out there raising money and are starting to see a little bit more interest, as well. So that’s how I would break it down between the independents, the super-majors, and the private equity-backed groups. And all three are certainly doing better than they were a year or two ago.
Stone: So to what extent are these companies generally exercising capital restraint? We’ve got these rising ESG concerns. We’ve got concerns about longer-term stranding of assets, new pipelines, new in-the-ground assets. Depending on where demand for gas goes in the future, how much are they weighing this uncertain future when they’re making their investment decisions?
Johnston: Not as much as you might think, for a couple of reasons. I think, again, the bigger issue is with the pipelines and take-away capacity. I think they generally feel that gas will have a more constructive role in the energy transition by displacing coal and being a firming intermittent solution for renewables. They may be proven wrong on that, but I think there is that view among the gas sector now that gas is — it may be a bridge fuel, but it’s a long bridge, so to speak.
And also remember, a lot of these big independents are getting to low-cost producers, right? So they feel like they can make pretty good money in not just a 3-dollar Henry Hub environment or 4 dollars, but even 2 dollars. In other words, they have a lot of incentive to grow supply. I don’t think that they’re quite — it seems to me the shale oil producers are a little bit more cautious right now, in part because of this kind of overhang of OPEC’s spare capacity, which we’re still winding down because of the uncertainty about gasoline demand and COVID, and the fact that the shale oil producers got beaten up pretty badly by the markets the last few years. But shale gas — I think the gas independents seem a little more bullish to me, and maybe feel like the combination of the lower cost production, cleaner balance sheets, and more favorable role for gas relative to oil in energy transition will give them maybe more of a pathway towards growth — not unconstrained growth by any means, but growth nonetheless.
Stone: Let’s say we get to a point where domestic gas demand exceeds gas supply. That could be such as during an extreme weather event, like that which happened in Texas, in ERCOT, the impact on ERCOT last winter. Is there a policy path that you might see to restricting LNG exports to keep domestic gas prices from spiking and having kind of a knock-on, negative effect on the U.S. economy in a situation where — a shortage of U.S. supply?
Johnston: Yes, I think there is. I think the market is still the more critical factor, that if domestic gas prices spike, it’s going to make U.S. LNG uncompetitive for exports. Now, some of that gas is under long-term take-away capacity, but some of it is more flexible, right? In fact, a lot of it is more flexible. So if there are lower-cost supplies out there, which is certainly a big question these days globally, that would kind of take market share from higher-cost U.S. LNG exports.
On the policy side, I think we are seeing House Democrats and senators like Elizabeth Warren talk about legislation that would freeze new LNG permitting, right? And that’s probably less about a short-term price spike, but more about kind of longer-term climate and affordability considerations. I don’t think there are enough votes in the Senate to support that legislation. I think I’m pretty confident about that. And even the Biden administration itself is probably — you know, they’ve been pretty careful to say they’re not considering an LNG curtailment or export ban. They’re trying to provide some security-of-demand signaling to the producers. Whether or not that works is a different story. If there was another Texas winter freeze, I think what you might get is some kind of moratorium for a very short-term period of time, but I can’t anticipate a moratorium or a freeze on exports of existing supply that would last weeks and months and years. That seems very unlikely to me.
Stone: So there are at least three LNG export projects, terminals, in development here in the United States, along the Gulf Coast right now, so you don’t see any headwinds in their development, either politically or from the demand side?
Johnston: I think overall, it’s pretty favorable. There are a couple of risks I could mention, but I think the E.U. gas crisis — it definitely has brought LNG back into the U.S. energy policy discussion, which is good. Biden has been certainly out there with his team lobbying the Qataris, but apparently he’s also talking to some of the U.S. producers. Now the problem is that there’s not much the U.S. producers can actually do in the short-term here, but there are some projects that are in the queue that will help the supply for the medium-term — 2023, 2024, 2025. What I think sometimes gets missed in the ESG and climate discussion is that the things that Biden wants the LNG industry to do, they’re probably going to do anyway, because of the shareholder and the ESG pressure. So for example, looking at CCUS, carbon capture, looking at reducing flaring, looking at using more renewable energy — those things are going to happen probably even without Biden administration action because those larger LNG developers, their shareholders want them to take those steps.
The single biggest risk I see is the courts. I think the risk here is that even if Biden doesn’t go to extremes on the policies, and some of the Democrats can’t get anything through Congress, what you might see are environmental groups challenging new LNG export permits. We just saw quite dramatically the courts throw out the entire Deep Water leasing round that the Department of Interior had for the Gulf of Mexico, on the grounds that they agreed with environmentalists that it didn’t properly consider climate considerations. So I would say the hardest risk to quantify but the one that’s likely the most material is those federal courts.
Stone: I’d like to talk a little bit more about the situation in Europe with Russia and Ukraine right now. As you mentioned a couple of minutes ago, the U.S. has reached out to Qatar and I think some other countries, looking to see if there are some additional shipments of LNG that those countries could ship to Europe as a backstop against any disruption in pipeline gas from Russia into Europe.
Now the U.S., I guess conceivably, could come forward itself and supply more LNG to Europe, assuming that American gas producers were incentivized to increase their production to serve this purpose. And tying in with a little bit of the ESG discussion here, this would be in line with U.S. national security concerns, but it would be counter, it seems, to the Biden administration’s climate goals. What, in your view, is the path forward on this from a policy angle, if the U.S. were to step up more significantly to supply Europe?
Johnston: Well, there’s just not that much elasticity in supply, right? Yes, on the upstream side, the higher price signal is flashing, and that should encourage more drilling, but when it comes to exports, we’re infrastructure-constrained. We only have so much capacity — 10 billion cubic feet a day or so of capacity for exports, which is fully utilized. So until you add more LNG export capacity, all you can really do is see cargoes that might otherwise go to Asia or, say, Brazil, getting diverted to the European market — not for any political reason, just because of a higher net back and higher prices in Europe right now. I think then beyond that, it’s a question of encouraging allies like Qatar to supply, and then working with the Europeans to figure out: Do they want more U.S. LNG in the long-term or the medium-term, and will they do off-take agreements for the LNG in the U.S. that’s in the queue?
So I think that some of the issues around Nord Stream 2, this whole Russian Ukraine crisis — it probably will cause the European leaders to rethink their gas policy strategy quite a bit. We’re already seeing that. The Germans have basically said that if there is a military conflict, they will walk away from Nord Stream 2, which is a big deal. There are more sanctions coming. And then that E.U. taxonomy I mentioned earlier for sustainable finance, they are saying yes, with a combination of insecurity about Russian supply of gas, plus the need for gas to balance our growing share of renewables means that we need to treat gas as a transition fuel at least to 2030, which creates a little bit more space, as well.
So there’s a lot happening there, but most of it is in the medium to long-term, and there’s not much they can do in the short-term to help Europe.
Stone: Could you walk us through some of the contexts in which natural gas could play a medium to long-term role primarily as a transition fuel? What would be the role of renewable natural gas or hydrogen or carbon capture and storage? Are these truly viable options for gas as a transitionary fuel?
Johnston: Yes, if you look at the International Energy Agency’s Net Zero 2050 Scenario, which was published in the spring of 2021, it’s quite influential. That scenario basically says that to get to a global carbon-neutral economy by 2050, you almost need to eliminate the role of so-called “unabated gas,” or as it’s called, “fossil gas.” And as you suggested, it’s not that there won’t be demand for gas, but it will either be gas in the form of gas with carbon encapsulation and storage, renewable natural gas, or hydrogen — blue and green hydrogen.
The question really is, we know that all three of those technology pathways are viable today. It’s just a question of cost and scale. They’re not cost competitive, but I think most of those scenarios believe that after 2030, something like blue hydrogen, which is natural gas going to a steam reformer, being transmissioned into hydrogen, and then with the associated CO2 being captured and sequestered, that that will be more price competitive and can displace not just gas, but coal in sectors like heating, heavy transportation and manufacturing.
So it’s really just how do we get from here to there? But I think the technical pathways are pretty viable. The question is really much like wind and solar on the electric power side. Ten or fifteen years ago, those were sort of niche technologies, and then as costs have come down, they become more competitive, captured market share. The same thing will happen with renewable natural gas, carbon capture, and hydrogen. How does that happen?
Well, first of all, you have to add a lot of manufacturing capacity, government subsidies. So I think all that is taking place. It’s a question of time. Now you could also say that if we get on a green hydrogen pathway where you can make hydrogen from electrolysis using wind or solar, then that would displace natural gas. If you’re on a blue hydrogen pathway, then that would still be a great market for natural gas because it would be the key feedstock, not renewable electricity. Renewable natural gas would also displace a lot of methane-based feedstock, but it would preserve at least a lot of the existing gas infrastructure — pipeline, storage, distribution, and things like that, that would be important.
And then obviously the best thing for the existing fossil gas industry would be to figure out the carbon encapsulation and storage, because then you would basically be having a more decarbonized natural gas product that would continue to provide home heating and industrial power and transportation — all the things that we’re seeing today.
Interestingly, the net zero scenario is not particularly bullish on carbon encapsulation and storage for gas, with the exception of a few developed markets like Japan and maybe Germany and places like that. They’re much more bullish on hydrogen, so time will tell to see if that’s the right forecast.
Stone: Would that be blue hydrogen made from gas, or are you talking about green hydrogen — or both?
Johnston: I think it’s both. I think it’s very location-specific. So if you’re Chile, and you have immense wind capacity and hydrologic capacity, you know, more than you could ever use, the idea of using some of that wind to make green hydrogen for export makes a lot of sense. Or if you’re Morocco with a surplus of solar power, great. Make green hydrogen and sell it to Europe. But if you’re, say Alberta or West Texas or North Dakota, and you’re flaring gas, and you’re looking for a new market and you have petrochemical infrastructure like steam reformers, and you have natural carbon sinks, then blue hydrogen will make a lot of sense for the industrial heartland in Alberta or the Port of Houston. So I think it’s very location-specific, and I think there’s a lot of room for both.
Stone: You know what really stands out to me as you’re talking about all this is really how uncertain and complex the demand outlook for gas really is. We’re not talking about just looking at overall standard demand. We’re talking about so many factors that are coming into play. What are the demand implications for gas going forward? What are the expectations? What do you think is going through the minds of the producers who are producing this gas? What are they seeing for the future? It’s a very broad question, but I’m just interested in what you might think about it.
Johnston: Yes, I wrote a piece for the Rural Energy Council four or five years ago, and the idea was that producers are going to have to fight for gas market share. And I didn’t mean fight on a price basis, but fight for the role of gas in energy transition because there are those that don’t think gas should be part of the energy transition and part of the climate solution. And those people are backing more of a hundred percent eutrophication pathway based on renewables, which I think is interesting because I’m certainly not against that. I see renewables playing a very significant role. I’m quite active and involved in a solar manufacturing company personally, so I definitely see the role of renewables, but I’ve spent my whole career working at energy security, and it’s pretty clear that energy security really depends on resilience, and resilience means having multiple fuels and multiple technologies and multiple geographies.
So I think if we displace natural gas prematurely, and we don’t fully develop opportunities like blue hydrogen or CCUS or renewable natural gas, we’re going to be putting a lot of pressure on the electrification supply chain. That means pressure on the grid, pressure on critical minerals and batteries, pressure on local electricity distribution, and I think that’s risky. And it could be expensive. And I think we’re seeing some of that in Europe already, so multiple pathways towards net zero. That’s the destination we want to get to.
So then the gas industry is doing a better job of making the case. It’s certainly a lot easier now when prices are high in places like Europe, and we’re seeing the dislocations when you don’t have gas security, but I think that battle will continue. So I guess to answer your question, to some degree the long-term demand for gas is in the hands of producers, and whether they can convince stakeholders or shareholders or governments and customers that they can be part of this transition pathway and become carbon neutral at a reasonable cost, relative to other alternatives.
Stone: I guess a final question for you, then, taking off on what you just said. Is there a technology that you are particularly excited about or you think has really strong potential to ensure that gas is a viable, longer-term resource as we go through the energy transition? Anything that you think has special potential?
Johnston: Yes, I’m pretty interested in not just hydrogen, but also ammonia — the possibility for blue ammonia. The thing about ammonia is that hydrogen is pretty difficult to ship. It’s a very light molecule. It’s not easy to put in a pipeline, but ammonia — Well, there are two pathways with ammonia. One is to actually convert hydrogen to ammonia, use the ammonia as sort of a liquid carrier, and then convert the ammonia back into hydrogen gas at the destination.
The second path is to simply produce blue ammonia with like carbon capture and sequestration, and then use the ammonia directly in a boiler or engine that can run it instead of oil or LNG. And the prime target for that seems to be shipping, which is quite interesting because of the heavy oil they’re using in the industry right now.
And I guess my key takeaway really here, given our U.S. focus, is for people to take a closer look at what the Biden administration is doing. I think maybe their support for natural gas has been nowhere near as public as what the Trump administration was doing, and there are certainly those in Congress who are anti-natural gas, but I think there’s a bit more of a pragmatic streak in the Biden administration than people may realize when it comes to natural gas, particularly under the current market conditions.
And again, the key risk to me really is the courts. And maybe it’s a bit of a recency bias, but I’m a little bit rattled by that recent court decision to cancel the Gulf of Mexico Deep Water auction. And I think that’s where a lot of the risk will be for natural gas in the U.S., more so than I think the Biden administration can do in the next year or two.
Stone: Robert, thanks for talking.
Johnston: My pleasure. I enjoyed the chance to chat and look forward to doing it again down the road.