Tuesday, December 11, 2012
Federal report gives thumbs up to shale gas exports Scenarios would help investors, hurt wage earners
The report by NERA Economic Consulting was forwarded last week to Christopher Smith, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Department of Energy. It shows that policy to encourage exportation of domestic energy reserves, thought by some to be a political non-starter, is being weighed by an administration that has identified on-shore drilling as a priority to stimulate energy independence.
With 20 different plays, the collection of shale gas reserves in the lower-48 United States is thought to be among the largest in the world. President Obama’s support of shale gas development comes despite opposition from some environmental organizations and grass roots campaigns that argue drilling poses risks to public health and the environment while channeling resources away from sustainable energy development.
Wrapped up in the exporting question is a debate over the merits of high volume hydraulic fracturing, a controversial practice to fracture bedrock and release gas by injecting well bores with pressurized chemical solutions. In 2005, the Bush/Cheney administration encouraged shale gas development by making fracking exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act. That exemption -- known to critics as the Haliburton Loophole -- came in addition to exemptions from hazardous waste laws enacted by Congress in both the Carter and Reagan years. The report issued last week is a sign that, despite a growing anti-fracking movement lead by progressives, the Obama administration could be thinking less about repealing exemptions and more about stimulating demand for the country’s shale gas.
The risks and merits of shale gas development are the subject of a polarizing national debate, including unresolved prospects of the Marcellus and Utica shale’s underlying parts of New York state. While fracking has lead to an onshore drilling boom in Texas, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Ohio, Colorado, Arkansas, West Virginia and other places, New York, has held off on permitting shale wells as it reexamines policy in light of concerns about impacts on environment and public health. While governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration is shooting for a deadline in late February to finalize regulations, it is awaiting analysis from an independent panel of health experts, and Cuomo has left the door open to shelving the process.
To make it suitable for exporting in tankers, gas is converted into liquid (Liquid Natural Gas or LNG). The idea of exporting domestic supplies to lucrative overseas markets in Europe and Asia is sure to spur more controversy. As prices drop domestically with increased supply, companies have proposed more than a dozen projects to build coastal exporting facilities. These include a $6 billion liquefied natural gas export terminal, already approved, at Sempra Energy’s existing import terminal at Hackberry in southwestern Louisiana, with permits for other projects pending. Gas exports would stimulate more shale gas development by easing a market glut and raising prices. Higher prices, in turn, provide incentive for more exploration, development and infrastructure build out. Critics warn that unconventional extraction methods have outpaced science and regulations to understand and mitigate the costs, even without the catalytic affect of exports.
“Exporting means more fracking, and there are a lot of regulations that need to be developed before this is even close to safe,” said Craig Segall, an attorney for the Sierra Club. “You haven’t done an analysis of the cost to the public and the environment. This is a huge one and you have to think about it.”
Jim Smith, a spokesman for Independent Oil & Gas Association of New York, said the agency would not be inclined to support policy that raises costs to manufacturers, which are a mainstay of the agency’s membership. “We have to look carefully at both sides of the equation,” he said.
Nationally, any gas exporting policy is sure to meet resistance from the manufacturing sector. Gas and its derivatives are used as both fuel and feedstock for domestically produced goods ranging from textiles to fertilizer to packaging. Domestic petro-chemical manufacturers, including DOW Jones and the Koch Industries, have already successfully lobbied against proposed federal subsidies to use natural gas to fuel vehicles because, the argument goes, increased demand would raise prices and hurt manufacturing.
Yet operators and investors can fetch much higher prices in overseas markets due to global demand. The winners and losers under exporting scenarios break down accordingly, with the winners being the natural gas industry and those who invest in it, and the losers being manufacturing, transportation, service, and agriculture sectors.
Under exporting scenarios, according to the NERA report:
“Wage income decreases in all industrial sectors except for the natural gas sector. Services and manufacturing sectors see the largest change in wage income in 2015 as these are sectors that are highly labor intensive.” The report explains that “the overall effect on the economy depends on the degree to which the economy adjusts by fuel switching, introducing new technologies, or mitigating costs by compensating parties disproportionately impacted.”
The most viable “fuel-switching” scenario is this: Plants that might otherwise burn gas would likely be more inclined to burn coal as gas prices rise. Critics argue that could leave the U.S. with both the environmental consequences of air and water pollution (including methane emissions) from unconventional shale gas development, plus CO2 and mercury pollution associated with burning coal.
Updated Dec. 12 Jannette Barth, an economist, consultant and shale gas industry critic, issued a critique today charging that the DOE study did not account for hidden costs -- ranging from increased demands on municipal resources to environmental degradation -- on local communities to produce gas. Barth argues that gas exports will benefit shareholders in gas extraction companies who tend to be affluent. “Only 54% of Americans own stock of any kind, retirement savings or otherwise. Clearly, not all of the 54% own natural gas stock.” Most who do “likely hold tiny numbers of shares in mutual funds.” Additionally, according to Barth’s assessment, many shareholders in the U.S. domestic shale gas play are from outsides the U.S.
What other reports and considerations are relevant to the discussion? What do you think?