When natural gas prices in the US soared in January on the back of another cold snap in a long and weary winter, it wasn’t simply due to an imbalance in supply and demand.
Sure, gas consumption had been climbing in light of the freezing arctic air hitting large parts of the US, including as far south as Louisiana and Texas. But with the US, holder of some of the world’s largest unconventional gas deposits, having emerged as a major producer of shale gas over the past five years — shale production accounted for almost half of domestic gas output in 2013 — the problem wasn’t a lack of supplies. The real issue was that much of the gas wasn’t available where it was needed most.
The gas price spike in New York on Jan. 22 was a case in point. That day, prices for next-day delivery in and around New York City soared to a stunning $120 per million British thermal units (BTU) – roughly 20 times higher than the price at the time in southern US states where fewer bottlenecks exist in the regional gas distribution infrastructure such as pipeline systems and storage facilities.
In the northeast, however, the situation is different. The region is more densely populated and, at the same time, facing supply constraints because of the distribution and storage system’s limited capacity, which prevents it from delivering enough gas to the main consumption centers such as New York during seasonal demand spikes. Despite unprecedented gas production levels from shale reserves, the resource simply can’t be made available all over the country all the time.
To be sure, shale gas developments in the US have revolutionized the local energy sector in a way that few would have expected only five years ago. But with US gas demand set for further growth in coming years on the back of higher usage in transport and industries, more pipeline exports to Mexico, and planned liquefied natural gas (LNG) shipments to Asia and Europe, the infrastructure bottlenecks need to be resolved urgently if the country as a whole is set to reap the benefits of the shale boom in the form of cheap and widely available gas.
The situation in the US goes to show that the development of shale reserves can potentially be a game changer – but it won’t happen easily and certainly not overnight.
Among the greatest challenges for the global gas industry has always been putting in place the infrastructure to deliver the fuel from its source to the main consumption centers, in particular covering long distances cross-country. The situation is even more complex when extracting shale gas because it requires extensive midstream pipeline networks to gather the gas recovered. That’s before the gas enters the downstream systems for transportation and distribution.
In the US, with its 305,000 miles of inter- and intrastate transmission pipelines, the distribution network is among the world’s most advanced. This existing infrastructure, and open access to it, has been a key facilitator in the growth of the domestic shale gas industry. Yet, it is in urgent need of expansion to prevent bottlenecks mid- and downstream.
The Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA) estimated in 2012 that the US will need to add gas transmission pipeline capacity to the tune of 43 billion cubic feet per day and 414,000 miles of new gas-gathering lines over the next 25 years to handle rising production.
In China, a shale gas hopeful, infrastructure is an even bigger challenge. The country may sit on the world’s largest potentially recoverable shale gas reserves at an estimated 1,115 trillion cubic feet (tcf) according to the US Energy Information Administration, compared with 665 tcf in the US. But the total length of its gas pipeline network is just around 32,000 miles.
Building out the mid- and downstream pipeline systems and related infrastructure to accommodate the gathering and distribution of shale gas will be an enormous and costly task. To address this, independent producers will need to be given pipeline access at a fair price as an incentive to enter the unconventional market. At present, China’s pipeline network is controlled by three state-run companies.
There are other challenges to the development of shale gas. In China and Saudi Arabia, another potential shale gas heavyweight with more than 600 tcf of estimated recoverable reserves, the bulk of the resources are located in semi-arid or arid regions. Since the production of shale gas via hydraulic fracturing requires vast amounts of water, this could present an obstacle to recovering these reserves – at least until water-free fracking becomes commercially feasible. This is still some way off, however.
Add to this the need for advanced technology, skilled personnel, and sound regulatory frameworks covering land rights and pricing, and it becomes clear why many shale gas plays may still be years, or even decades, away from materializing. After all, it took the US some 20 years to bring shale gas within the realm of technical and economic feasibility.
So is shale gas truly a game changer? It has, without a doubt, added a new dimension to the US energy industry and the economy at large. Lower gas prices translate into cheaper electricity production and industries such as petrochemicals are getting an unexpected shot in the arm. There are other benefits. But unless the structural challenges will be overcome, shale gas will predominantly play out on a regional level. The times of winter gas price spikes aren’t over just yet.
— James McCallum, CEO & chairman,
LR Senergy Group.