A number of recent reports on American energy illustrate anew the power of markets to deliver prosperity — rapidly — and the impotence of government to do the same. In short, spontaneous order has once again accomplished what the dead hand of statism could not.
The first report concerns the unsurprising demise of yet another solar power company. SunEdison is filing for bankruptcy, after seeing its stock price drop a whopping 98% in less than a year. Wall Street mavens such as David Einhorn (billionaire owner of a hedge fund called Greenlight Capital) and Leon Cooperman (of Omega Advisors) had considered the company a sure bet, but it proved to be a sure loser.
SunEdison is just one of an endless stream of solar companies that started, during the reign of the Obama administration, with the promise of giving us cheap power while healing the planet of global warming. Typically, they began with direct or indirect government subsidies — only to fail miserably.
Other stories tell us of better news. Just two months ago — in a nice piece of negotiation for which he received only vilification from the pestilent swarm of populist talk show hosts — Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) reached a budget deal with the administration that once again (after a ban of biblical proportions — 40 years) allowed the exportation of domestically produced oil abroad. I have argued before that this is a major geopolitical game changer. We can now sell the fruits of our petroleum fracking revolution on the world market, thus ending, once and for all, the power of the oil cartel (OPEC) to gouge the rest of the world. Oil prices can now be kept low indefinitely. If Russia or the OPEC thieves try to cut back on production to extort more money from Europe and Asia in the form of higher prices, or if the demand for oil goes up because of a future worldwide economic boom, the Great American Frackers can just drill more wells, with no shortage for the foreseeable future.
SunEdison is just one of an endless stream of solar companies that started with the promise of giving us cheap power while healing the planet of global warming, only to fail miserably.
Less remarked upon, but no less remarkable, has been the flourishing of American natural gas production — driven again by the fracking companies. The miracle of fracking has dramatically reduced the prices of domestic natural gas — in fact, driven the price of natural gas to the lowest it has been in 17 years. Moreover, North America’s natural gas production is now about 450% greater than Africa’s, 80% greater than the Asian Pacific’s, 50% greater than the Middle East’s, and only 5% smaller than Eurasia’s; and it is set to grow apace over the next few years.
Why? Because the domestic price is now so low that American energy companies find it attractive to liquefy natural gas and ship it abroad. And that’s what is starting to happen. For example, just last month, the first shipment of American produced natural gas — ethane — left the Marcus Hook terminal in Philadelphia, headed for Europe. The purchaser of the liquefied natural gas (LNG), Swiss petrochemical company Ineos, plans to use it in its Norway facility. (Ethane is primarily a feedstock for plastic production. Methane is what is typically used for heating and power generation.) Given current trends, the US could become the world’s third largest exporter of LNG, right behind Qatar and Australia — in just four years.
Now consider the Cheniere Energy company’s Sabine Pass facility (located on the Gulf Coast), which aims to be fully operational in less than three years. By itself alone it will be able to export 3.5 billion cubic feet (Bcf) per day.
US producers have a key cost advantage: they can reconfigure import facilities to become export facilities relatively inexpensively. So as domestically produced natural gas replaces all imports, we can seamlessly start sending LNG abroad. The US Department of Energy has approved projects that will increase the potential exports of LNG to 10 Bcf per day, and is swamped with new applications that if granted could boost those exports another 35 Bcf per day. That is nearly the size of today’s global market.
Of course, already some people have raised worries that by exporting so much of our domestically produced natural gas, our own consumers will face shortages and see domestic prices soar. This is doubtful. For one thing, the US already has something like four trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of natural gas stored underground, and produces 30 Tcf a year. So even if the Department of Energy approves all the projects under submission, the effect on domestic prices will be limited. One recent estimate by the US Energy Information Administration is that an increase of 12 to 20 Bcf per day in exports would raise domestic natural gas prices by 4–11% per million Btu.
The miracle of fracking has driven the price of natural gas to the lowest it has been in 17 years.
Making the chance that increasing exports will raise domestic prices of natural gas even more remote is the fact that, with the colossal amount of American shale deposits of natural gas — not to mention our immense amount of conventional supplies — the number of fracking operations will grow dramatically as our exports increase. That will increase domestic supplies as well, and hold their price down. Moreover, because building out export facilities is costly, the rate of increase will be relatively tame.
Still, the excellent economic news is that we will have another great export market to exploit, providing hundreds of thousands of high-paying blue-collar jobs all over this country — jobs sorely needed, as our older manufacturing jobs are automated away. For example, it is estimated that America will need 100 more LNG tankers over the next 15 years, as our exports surge ahead.
American natural gas exports will soon be headed to Asia as well as Europe. China is increasing its own production of natural gas, in part because the pollution caused by all its coal-fired power plants is making city life intolerable, but developing its own shale resources is proving difficult. Japan is perennially in need of natural gas (and petroleum as well). The export route to Asia will be dramatically improved by the $5.3 billion expansion of the Panama Canal just being completed. This will cut an average of 11 days off the time it takes to ship oil from the Gulf Coast to Asia.
This is also great geopolitical news. We will be able to supply natural gas to Europe, which right now depends upon the thoroughly corrupt and evil Russian company Gazprom. Russia has shown a vicious propensity to price-gouge when it can, and it uses its supply as an instrument of state power in the revanchist quest to reestablish the Soviet Empire. That quest will be sharply curtailed by American natural gas exports to Europe.
The prospect of American natural gas liberating Poland, the Baltic states, and other formerly Soviet-controlled countries from Russian hegemony was the subject of another recent report. It notes that several countries are eagerly awaiting buying LNG from the United States, and some — such as Poland — are building import terminals in anticipation that American shipments will increase. Russia supplies about a third of all Europe’s natural gas. Some of the former Soviet countries (such as Bulgaria) get 90% of their supplies from Russia.
As Lithuania’s energy minister has said, “In Russia, gas always goes together with politics.” But he added, “Russia is extremely aggressive in gas pricing and the arrival of US LNG will change that.” Goldman Sachs estimates that the arrival of American LNG should drop the price by one-quarter in just two years.
The US will have another great export market to exploit, providing hundreds of thousands of high-paying blue-collar jobs all over this country.
Russia feigns unconcern about the arrival of American LNG. Alexander Medvedev, Gazprom’s deputy chairman, discreetly claimed, “We are very relaxed about US LNG, though very attentive.” Analyst Trevor Sikorski explains that while Russian gas currently costs about $4.60 per million Btus, American gas will cost about $3.60 (when the cost of shipping is included). So Russia could “chase out” the US (as Sikorski suggests) by, say, lowering its price to $2. But I think the Russians are merely whistling past the graveyard. For one thing, Russia has for several years funded European environmentalist organizations, enabling them to propagandize against fracking. If it were so easy for the Russians to undercut the price of gas produced by fracking, why does Russia so oppose it in other countries?
Second, there is a flaw in the argument that Russia can just chase the US out of the European market by dumping its own natural gas at (say) half what it currently charges. The problem with that argument is — against all “dumping” arguments — that the Americans would stay out only as long as Russia incurred that 50% lower revenue stream. But the reduction would severely limit Russia’s ability to continue upgrading its military and taking over more of Eastern Europe. Worse for Russia, the minute it decided to raise its prices back up, American oil companies would need only a day to start shipments to Europe, and only a couple of weeks for the oil to arrive.
It seems likely that Russia will simply lower its prices to match or slightly undercut the American pricing — say, pricing its natural gas at $3.50. But this will still be quite damaging to Russia’s revanchist goals, and therefore good news for the rest of us. Russia will lose 20–25% of its current revenue stream — a major hit indeed. More importantly, even if Russia charges approximately what American companies do, the former Soviet countries will probably still order American gas, the better to keep their freedom from Russian domination.
In sum, American LNG may forever free the Eastern Europeans from Russia’s paws. This is reason for rejoicing.
But there are two reasons for not rejoicing. First, both candidates for the Democratic nomination for president — Clinton and Sanders — have said that they utterly oppose fracking. No doubt whichever one wins the nomination will be lavishly, if covertly, funded by the Russians.
Worse, the two leading candidates for the Republican nomination — Trump and Cruz — would almost certainly lose to the Democrat in the general election. The Republicans are hellbent on losing the best shot they have had to take back the White House in eight years. Go figure that out.