Unlimited gas exports threaten manufacturing renaissance

Allowing unlimited exports of liquefied natural gas threatens a U.S. manufacturing rebirth that has just begun, halting tens of billions of dollars in petrochemical projects in Louisiana and Texas, and forcing consumers nationwide to pay much higher utility bills, executives with The Dow Chemical Co. said Wednesday.

Although supporters say exports will benefit the U.S. economy, Dow and other members of America’s Energy Advantage say the federal government should carefully consider the economic consequences before allowing “unfettered” LNG exports.

“Energy exports won’t make Europe or the Pacific more competitive,” said James R. Fitterling, executive vice president for Dow. “What they are going to do is take away energy competitiveness from America that’s going to undercut the ability to create all these jobs and create all the economic growth.”

Unlimited exports could mean a spike in electricity and utility bills like those seen last winter. Without any LNG exports, gas and propane supplies were so tight that prices jumped from about $4.50 to more than $20 per thousand cubic feet in some parts of the country. In the Northeast, the prices rocketed to more than $100 per thousand cubic feet.

“When we caution about balance on the export side, what we’re saying is it’s all about energy costs,” Fitterling said.

Nationally, more than 120 projects valued at more than $100 billion in energy-intensive industries, including steel, glass, aluminum, fertilizer and methanol, have been announced, with many of them in Louisiana and Texas. Roughly half of the investment is from foreign companies building in the U.S. to take advantage of energy prices.

In Louisiana, Dow has invested $1.6 billion since Christmas 2012, reopening an ethylene plant near Hahnville and a $1 billion project in Plaquemine for two olefins plants and an expansion of ethylene production.

Fitterling and Kevin Kolevar, vice president of government affairs and public policy for Dow, are part of a Dow contingent making the rounds in Baton Rouge and New Orleans to talk with community and business leaders about the need to limit LNG exports. Dow officials also are discussing industry’s need for additional investment in education and workforce training and infrastructure, such as additional bridges across the Mississippi River to help improve commerce and aid plant workers.

A 2012 report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy says LNG exports would mean higher utility bills for businesses and consumers but estimates prices would rise between 22 cents and $1.11 per thousand cubic feet in five years.

But America’s Energy Advantage members say the report vastly underestimates the impact of LNG exports when combined with the natural gas demand from industrial projects, along with a shift of power generation from coal and nuclear fuel and as home heating moves from fuel oil.

The country now uses about 64 billion cubic feet of gas per day, Fitterling said. Power generation, industrial demand and home heating are expected to increase domestic demand by about 30 billion cubic feet per day by 2020.

The Department of Energy already has given seven facilities, with a combined capacity of 9.3 billion cubic feet, permission to export to non-free trade agreement countries. The non-FTA countries include those in Europe and Asia. Permits for 17 other LNG export facilities are in the works.

A decade ago, the cost for natural gas jumped to more than $10 per thousand cubic feet, and a number of LNG import facilities were permitted. Most weren’t built, and few imported any gas.

But having blind faith that the same thing will happen this time around with export facilities is “a little bit ludicrous,” Fitterling said.

“There’s a tipping point here, and we’re rapidly reaching it,” Fitterling said.

Once that point is reached, America will lose its energy competitiveness. The energy advantage is one of the country’s most important resources, next to people and innovation. But if unlimited exports boost natural gas prices to $10 per thousand cubic feet, it will scare away all the investment, he said.

Consumers, whose utility bills dropped an average of $2,000 per year thanks to the shale gas revolution, will suffer, Fitterling said. But industry will leave as it did when natural gas prices jumped a decade ago.

Fitterling said the sweet spot for exports is around 10 billion cubic feet per day, an amount that would make America the largest LNG exporter in the world.

Kolevar said there’s a tremendous amount of gas available in the near and long term.

“The concern we have is in the midterm, the three- to five-year time frame, because that’s when all of this comes online. That’s when all of these LNG facilities propose to come online; that’s when the better part of the industrial growth is scheduled to come online,” Kolevar said.

It’s also when the coal-fired power plants are set to begin shutting down, he said. Even a short-term imbalance in the supply and demand would result in a price spike. The only flexible part of that demand is from industry, and the only way that demand is balanced is by industry pulling back on projects.

Follow Ted Griggs on Twitter, @tedgriggsbr.