Shale Gas Boom Rejuvenating US Industry

  • Date: 16/11/12
  • The Washington Post

The shale gas revolution is firing up an old-fashioned American industrial revival, breathing life into businesses such as petrochemicals and glass, steel and toys. Manufacturers have plans to invest as much as $80 billion in U.S. chemical, fertilizer, steel, aluminum, tire and plastics plants. And the main reason is the massive competitive advantage the United States has with natural gas today.

Consider the rising fortunes of Ascension Parish, La.

Methanex, which closed its last U.S. chemical plant in 1999, is spending more than half a billion dollars to dismantle a methanol plant in Chile and move it to the parish.

Nearby, a petrochemical company, Williams, is spending $400 million to expand an ethylene plant. And on Nov. 1, CF Industries unveiled a $2.1 billion expansion of its nitrogen fertilizer manufacturing complex, aiming to displace imports that now make up half of U.S. nitrogen fertilizer sales.

These companies all rely heavily on natural gas. And across the country, companies like them are crediting the sudden abundance of cheap natural gas for revving up their U.S. operations. Thanks to new applications of drilling technology to unlock natural gas trapped in shale rock, the nation’s output has surged and energy experts almost unanimously forecast that prices will remain low or moderate for a generation.

The International Energy Agency says that by 2015, the United States will overtake Russia as the world’s biggest gas producer.

“The supply of natural gas and the price are the driving factors, and we’re swimming in natural gas down here,” said Mike Eades, president of the Ascension Economic Development Corp.

“It has become clear to me that the responsible development of our nation’s extensive recoverable oil and natural gas resources has the potential to be the once-in-a-lifetime economic engine that coal was nearly 200 years ago,” U.S. Steel Chairman John Surma said in a speech this year.

Industrial companies are betting that the surge in the domestic production of natural gas is much more than a blip. Cheap and plentiful supplies of natural gas are flooding the U.S. market, and prices in the United States are as low as a quarter of what they are in Europe or Asia.

“For the foreseeable future, thanks to the recovery of vast U.S. underground gas deposits of shale, natural gas is likely to remain 50 to 70 percent cheaper in the U.S. than in Europe and Japan,” said a recent report by the Boston Consulting Group.

“That will translate into significantly lower costs for electricity generation, for fuel used to power industrial plants and for feedstock used across many industrial processes,” said Justin Rose, a BCG principal and co-author of the report.

Manufacturers have plans to invest as much as $80 billion in U.S. chemical, fertilizer, steel, aluminum, tire and plastics plants, according to Dow Chemical. And the main reason, said George J. Biltz, Dow Chemical’s vice president for energy and climate change, “comes back to the massive competitive advantage the United States has with natural gas today.”

The shale boom has not just changed corporate plans. It has also altered the way we think and talk about oil and gas.

For decades, most of the conversation about U.S. oil and natural gas has revolved around the idea of scarcity, declining output and rising prices. The seminal work by M. King Hubbert – the Shell geologist who accurately predicted in the 1950s that U.S. oil production would peak in 1971 – defined this framework.

Natural gas supplies traditionally have been seen as limited and gas prices have been volatile – burning utilities that bet too heavily on gas-fired power plants in the 1990s.

But past assumptions have been challenged by new technologies – and new uses of old technology. Years of pioneering work on drilling techniques by an independent oilman, George Mitchell, paid off. Despite concerns about water pollution risks linked to hydraulic fracturing of shale, drilling and production have soared.

The United States is rife with these shale plays, some rich in natural gas and others rich in oil. The United States is still producing less oil than in 1971, and prices are high. But the country is producing more oil than in any year since 1994, and production is rising.

Meanwhile, natural gas production has jumped to record levels. In 2000, shale gas was 2 percent of the U.S. natural gas supply; by 2012, it was 37 percent.

Natural gas supplies suddenly look bountiful enough to last a century at current consumption rates, the National Petroleum Council said in a report last year. Some advocates of natural gas have called it a “bridge” to a clean-energy future because its greenhouse gas emissions are half those of coal and because gas plants can start up quickly and pair with wind and solar to provide a reliable alternative to coal.

Others call it a detour, since it is still a fossil fuel and it is undercutting nuclear, wind and solar energy as well as coal. “Bridge to clean future or U-turn to dirty past?” said a headline on the blog of the environmental group Earthjustice. The United States has drilled more oil and gas wells than any other country, and the new wave of supplies has brought a new wave of rigs dotting the countryside and new crisscrossing pipelines.

For environmentalists, the abundance of shale gas poses a political and environmental dilemma. As new gas supplies fuel more and more industrial plants, new constituencies will have stakes in gas production, making it politically harder to impose new regulations. The Environmental Protection Agency is weighing whether to issue additional federal guidelines on various disruptive aspects of shale gas drilling, including the disposal of toxic water used to fracture wells and air pollution from drilling operations. The EPA might also issue rules requiring drilling techniques that would make contamination of water aquifers less likely.

But one thing is clear: Tumbling natural gas prices have changed every calculation and assumption about the energy business.

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