Government report predicts big economic boost from natural gas exports

The United States would score big economic benefits by exporting more of its natural gas bounty, according to a study released Wednesday that delivered a big win to energy companies eager to sell the fossil fuel to Japan, China and other countries.

The 230-page report commissioned by the Energy Department and prepared by NERA Economic Consulting concluded that the “U.S. would experience net economic benefits from increased liquefied natural gas exports,” with the projected gains in new economic activity and revenue from foreign sales outweighing modestly higher energy prices and damage to some industries.

The report concluded that the “U.S. would experience net economic benefits from increased liquefied natural gas exports,” with the projected gains in new economic activity and revenue from foreign sales outweighing modestly higher energy prices and damage to some industries.

“A higher natural gas price does lead to higher energy costs and impacts industries that use natural gas extensively,” NERA said. But “these costs are more than offset by increases in export revenues, along with a wealth transfer from overseas received in the form of payments for liquefaction services.”

Although federal regulators recently approved Houston-based Cheniere Energy’s plans to begin exporting liquefied natural gas from its Sabine Pass terminal in southwest Louisiana, the Energy Department has put 15 similar applications on hold pending the study released Wednesday.

The report could provide support for the Obama administration to allow more exports, amid concerns that shipping additional natural gas overseas would hike energy costs for U.S. consumers and throttle a domestic manufacturing resurgence spurred by relatively low prices for the fossil fuel.

White House energy adviser Heather Zichal previously has stressed that the long-awaited and twice-delayed analysis would drive export decisions.

But the administration and skeptical lawmakers appeared to be distancing themselves from the analysis on Wednesday.

The Energy Department stressed that it would be conducting its own review of the NERA study and accepting public comments through late January before making any decisions on export licenses on a case-by-case basis. And some congressional critics of natural gas exports cast doubt on the data used in the latest economic study.

Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said he was “concerned that the negative impacts on American workers and manufacturing could be vastly underestimated in this analysis because it is based on old data that may understate industrial demand by 30 percent.”

Pending applications filed with the Energy Department could put the United States on track to export 21.5 billion cubic feet of liquefied natural gas each day to nations that do not have free-trade agreements with the United States — nearly a third of the natural gas the country was producing at the end of last year.

The United States already sells some natural gas to some of the country’s free trade partners, including Brazil, Canada and Mexico. But export advocates say there isn’t enough demand in those nations to keep planned liquefaction terminals humming.

While federal law generally requires automatic approval of natural gas exports to the free trade partners, the Energy Department is tasked with reviewing proposals to sell natural gas to other countries on a case-by-case basis.

According to the NERA report, natural gas suppliers would benefit from exports, but climbing prices caused by steadily increasing exports would squeeze electric utilities, energy-intensive companies and manufacturers that rely on the fossil fuel as a building block to create fertilizers, plastics and other products.

Though the report concludes that exports probably won’t harm employment nationwide, they might spur “shifts in the number of workers across industries.”

NERA predicted that natural gas prices could jump as much as 33 cents per thousand cubic feet initially and up to $1.11 per thousand cubic feet after five years of gradually increasing exports. Labor and investment income would fall about $10 billion in 2015 and $45 billion in 2030, according to the study.

At the same time, LNG exports could bring in annual revenues ranging from $2.6 billion to $32.9 billion and cause the gross domestic product to increase by $4.4 billion to $47 billion in 2020, NERA said.

The report concluded that ultimately, the broad economic benefits trump the higher energy costs.

“A higher natural gas price does lead to higher energy costs and impacts industries that use natural gas extensively,” the report said. But, according to the analysis, “these costs are more than offset by increases in export revenues, along with a wealth transfer from overseas received in the form of payments for liquefaction services.”

Previous studies have forecast wide-ranging effects from selling America’s natural gas harvest overseas:

  • An Energy Information Administration analysis released in January concluded that exporting natural gas would cause prices to climb in the U.S. According to the EIA, consumers’ electricity bills would increase by 1 percent to 3 percent from 2015 to 2035 and industrial prices would climb between 9 and 28 percent higher.
  • A separate Brookings Institution study released in May concluded that selling more natural gas overseas would cause a “modest” increase in prices and recommended the U.S. neither stand in the way of new exports nor actively advance them.
  • Export advocates said the report made a strong case for authorizing companies to sell the fossil fuel overseas. Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said the “comprehensive and transparent review” makes clear “that exporting LNG would be beneficial to the U.S. economy, and the greater the level of exports, the greater the benefit.”

    But critics, including the Senate energy panel’s incoming chairman, Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said the study proved the U.S. should move cautiously. In a statement while the senator reviewed the full report, Wyden’s office noted that “the study appears to confirm that exports of LNG will raise the domestic price of natural gas.”

    “Regardless of this study’s conclusions, Sen. Wyden will continue to call on the Energy Department to ensure that unfettered natural gas exports don’t harm U.S. consumers and manufacturers,” according to the statement. “Forecasts and scenarios are worthwhile, but the department has an obligation to consider the impacts of each of the actual applications before it.”

    Markey noted that the report predicts “some big winners” as well as “many big losers in our economy.”

    “American consumers and manufacturers will be the losers, as exporting natural gas will increase domestic prices by up to 30 percent, and reduce domestic investment and wages by $45 billion per year by 2030,” he said. “If exports are approved, the winners are mainly those in the natural gas business and those holding their stock. This report confirms that if natural gas exports move forward on a large scale there will be a massive wealth transfer from working Americans to oil and gas companies.”

    Some energy analysts say the current natural gas drilling boom – driven by technological advances that have allowed the fossil fuel to be extracted from dense rock formations across the United States – can’t be sustained under current prices. Exports that provide new markets for natural gas and cause a modest lift on U.S. prices could support continued drilling.

    “This is a big opportunity for the administration to bolster job creation and economic growth and to address the backlog of LNG export applications,” said Erik Milito, upstream director at the American Petroleum Institute.

    Bill Cooper, president of the Center for Liquefied Natural Gas, noted that the report provides economic good news “at a time when millions of families are struggling financially.”

    “This latest report from DOE clearly shows we can export LNG without adversely affecting the availability or affordability of our abundant natural gas supplies,” Cooper added.

    But manufacturers swiftly attacked the report, with the Industrial Energy Consumers of America saying it had four major “weaknesses,” including failing to examine the effect of looming regulations on the hydraulic fracturing process that is key to unlocking new domestic sources of natural gas.

    IECA said the report also fails to study an alternative to exports: corralling U.S.-harvested natural gas and leveraging it to create American jobs in manufacturing and other sectors. “If we use these resources domestically, it will maximize economic growth and job creation for this country,” the group said.

    The report’s impact on Capitol Hill is far from clear cut.

    Kevin Book, an analyst with Washington, D.C.-based ClearView Energy Partners, noted that while the report projects broad, “net economic benefits” from LNG exports, U.S. energy policy decisions frequently “are made in a fragmented, multifaceted process that can give disproportionate weight to the individual political, economic and regional biases of key decision-makers.”

    U.S. companies looking to export natural gas include Dominion, Southern Co., and Texas-based Freeport LNG. Some are hoping to convert existing LNG import terminals that were established before the current domestic drilling boom.

    The liquefaction process involves cooling natural gas to 256 degrees below zero, which transforms it into a liquid that can be transported by tanker ships and later converted back to gas at its destination.

    DOE's Nov. 29, 2012 summary of LNG export applications