Senate Hearing Confirms Natural Gas Export Plans Will Raise Prices For Americans

Senate Hearing Confirms Natural Gas Export Plans Will Raise Prices For Americans
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Considering the rate at which natural gas resources are being developed, and the sudden push from industry to export the product, it might come as a surprise that the Senate’s Energy Committee hadn’t had a hearing on liquified natural gas (LNG) since 2005.

Last Tuesday, for the first time in six years, Senators brought the issue back to the Capitol spotlight, as they considered the impact of exporting LNG on domestic prices.

In order to export or import natural gas, companies can either transport it through pipelines, or ship it as liquefied natural gas (LNG). LNG is natural gas cooled to -260 degrees Fahrenheit, at which point the gas becomes a liquid. Back in 2006, LNG imports far outstripped exports, and industry used that trade deficit to push for a massive expansion of domestic drilling, relying heavily on the argument for American “energy security.”

Now that that expansion is well-underway, with the infamous Utica and Marcellus shales the frontier of rapid development, utilizing controversial fracking and horizontal drilling techniques, the industry is eager to start exporting LNG to international markets where the fuel fetches a much heftier price.

The Senate hearing comes in the wake of a massive 20-year, $8 billion deal between the British BGGroup and Houston-based Cheniere Energy.

The amount of LNG represented in that deal alone amounts to roughly 3.3 percent of all current U.S. natural gas consumption.There are currently four other export applications on the desks of the Department of Energy (Dominion Energy’s Jordan Cove project, which I wrote about here, is another), and together they would be the equivalent of 10 percent of current U.S. natural gas use, according to Chris Smith, a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Oil & Gas at the DOE.

Exporting that amount of LNG alone is, lawmakers worry, enough to impact domestic prices. Earlier this year, when the DOE approved  the export permit for the Sabine Pass LNG project in Louisaiana (where the Cheniere LNG would ship off towards Europe), the department admitted that the project would raise gas prices in the U.S. by more than 10 percent.

Speaking at the hearing last Tuesday, Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon put Smith on the spot as to the rational of that decision:

Clearly, the department believes that raising natural gas pries by 10 percent meets the public interest test required by the Natural Gas Act…My question is, does the department believe that raising gas prices by five times that amount would be in the public interest?

The agency must determine whether the export projects are in the “national interest” during the approval process.

These first five proposed export deals represent, as Reuters referred to the Cheniere deal, “a new  chapter in the shale gas revolution that has redefined global markets.”

Many energy experts, environmentalists, and lawmakers like Senator Wyden are concerned that, despite the rhetoric, a massive expansion of natural gas drilling won’t actually improve America’s energy security or self-reliance, but will only help the gas companies reach more lucrative foreign markets, leaving Americans to clean up the mess and pay for any pollution, spills, or long-term ecosystem degradation, as well as paying higher natural gas prices.

As proof of the industry’s intention to tie into a global market, Wyden held up a graph of LNG prices worldwide, showing that prices are up to three times higher overseas than they are in the United States.

(DeSmogBlog has contacted Senator Wyden’s office for a clearer copy of that graph, and will post it when we receive it.)

Showing the graph, Wyden warned, “Exports in the United States are going to make natural gas like the oil market. That’s why I’m concerned about what these price hikes could mean for our businesses and our consumers.”

Some other interesting bits from Wyden’s testimony:

“I’m trying to get my arms around where the department is going to draw the line. Given the fact that prices overseas are many times higher than North American prices, my question really deals with how high do you think the price of the natural gas in the United States can go up as a result of these exports and still meet the public interest test?
Is there anything else you can tell me about how the department is going to draw the line so we can tell American businesses and consumers that they’re going to be able to get affordable natural gas as a result of this new export policy?”
“We’re going to be looking at impact on GDP. We’re going to be looking at jobs. We’re going to be looking at impact on a balance of trade. Some of those factors will be affected by the price itself. So we understand the importance that price holds.
“We also understand that natural gas at these export levels remains an inherently local domestic commodity. Prices are higher in Asia, but if you compare natural gas with oil, oil is a globally fungible commodity where you have enough transportation infrastructure to move oil from market to market. Whereas the ability to couple prices in the United States with prices in Asia, there simply isn’t the infrastructure that would allow you to do that at this point in time.”

Also providing testimony was Jim Collins, director of underground utilities for the city of Hamilton, Ohio. Collins argued that exporting LNG would tie the country to international markets, and would increase domestic prices and cause Americans’ utility bills to rise. Collins is no anti-gas crusader. He supports the use of natural gas as a transportation fuel and electricity producer, but is worried that the export strategies of gas companies will leave Americans worse off.

Today, the vast  majority of natural gas exports from the United States travel through pipelines into Mexico and Canada. Only about 5 percent of natural gas exports currently leave our borders as LNG from coastal ports. (I dug deeper into the natural gas trade numbers in this earlier post.)

As of last year, there were 11 LNG terminals in the United States, only one of which – Sabine Pass – is approved for exports. That the industry is lobbying so hard to open up other terminals for overseas shipping is proof that the “energy security” claims they’re making to rally favor around rapid shale gas development are disingenuous at best.

It’s worth noting that natural gas imports are still far greater than exports, and current natural gas demand still outstrips domestic supply. If “energy security” were the real goal, then the companies should be content closing the gap of domestic supply and demand.

But because the gas industry intends to tie into the more lucrative foreign markets as soon as possible, Americans will wind up paying higher energy bills, and will be left with all the risk, and cleaning up all the industry’s pollution and waste. Which is why so many energy experts, environmentalists and lawmakers see natural gas exports as a lose-lose for America.

Senate Hearing Confirms Natural Gas Export Plans Will Raise Prices For Americans
Ben Jervey is a Senior Fellow for DeSmog and directs the KochvsClean.com project. He is a freelance writer, editor, and researcher, specializing in climate change and energy systems and policy. Ben is also a Research Fellow at the Institute for Energy and the Environment at Vermont Law School. He was the original Environment Editor for GOOD Magazine, and wrote a longstanding weekly column titled “The New Ideal: Building the clean energy economy of the 21st Century and avoiding the worst fates of climate change.” He has also contributed regularly to National Geographic News, Grist, and OnEarth Magazine. He has published three books—on eco-friendly living in New York City, an Energy 101 primer, and, most recently, “The Electric Battery: Charging Forward to a Low Carbon Future.” He graduated with a BA in Environmental Studies from Middlebury College, and earned a Master’s in Energy Regulation and Law at Vermont Law School. A bicycle enthusiast, Ben has ridden across the United States and through much of Europe.

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