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Last Updated: March 21, 2016
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Every week, the EIA proclaims a new record for natural gas production. But their own forecasts show that the U.S. will be short on supply by October of this year. A price increase is inevitable beginning later in 2016.

Popular Myth vs Reality

The popular myth is that gas production will continue to increase and that prices will remain low for years. In the myth, price has no effect on production. The reality is that price matters and production is down 1.2 bcfd1 since September 2015

The production increases reported by EIA are year-over-year comparisons that don’t reflect declines during the last 4 months.

Prices have fallen to less than half what they were in early 2014. The average price for the first quarter of 2016 is only $2.25 per MBTU2

Hedges made when prices were in the $5-range carried many companies through falling prices as they continued to produce like there was no tomorrow. Tomorrow has arrived and the hedges are gone.

Over-production in the Marcellus Shale means that producers have to compete for limited pipeline capacity by deeply discounting their sales price. The best core area locations are commercial at $4 per mcf3 but wellhead prices averaged only $1.75 per mcf in 2015.

No Simple Solution to Falling Supply

There is no simple solution to falling supply. That’s because almost half of U.S. supply is conventional gas and it is in terminal decline. Now, shale gas is also in decline

Conventional gas supply has fallen 16.75 bcfd since July 2008. Until July 2015, increases in shale gas production more than offset those losses.

Conventional gas will continue to decline at about 5% per year because few companies are drilling those plays. Shale gas must, therefore, continue to grow by at least 15 bcfd per year just to offset annual conventional gas decline (~2.5 bcfd per year) and legacy shale gas production decline (~12.5 bcfd per year).

It will take 15 bcfd of new shale gas production in 2016 to keep U.S. production flat.

Shale gas production replacement and growth for 2015 were 14.5 bcfd, down from almost 18 bcfd in 2014. It will be difficult to match 14.5 bcfd in 2016 because shale gas production has been falling 0.72 bcfd (~2.2 bcfd annualized) for the last 4 months of data

Although additional reserves exist in the Barnett and Fayetteville plays, the core areas have been largely developed and marginal areas require substantially higher gas prices to be commercial. There is only one horizontal rig operating in the Barnett and there are none in the Fayetteville.

Production in the Haynesville Shale has decreased by 3.64 bcfd since its peak. High costs and relatively low EURs make the play uneconomic below about $6.50 gas prices. Parts of the core areas remain under-developed at today’s prices.

Marcellus production declined 0.52 mcfd since July 2015. Most of this probably represented intentional shut-ins because of low wellhead prices. Marcellus production can grow but new pipelines are needed to turn reserves into supply. Even with additional infrastructure, production will peak in the next few years just like in the older plays.

Production in the Utica and Woodford plays is increasing but it is largely offset by declining associated gas from the Eagle Ford, Bakken and other tight oil plays.

A Supply Deficit Even In The Optimistic EIA Case

The EIA forecasts that net dry gas production will increase 1.4 bcfd in 2016 and 1.6 bcfd 2017. Even with that optimistic forecast, their data still shows that the U.S. will have a supply deficit beginning in the last quarter of 2016

A supply deficit does not mean that there won’t be enough gas. There is ample gas presently in storage to cover a supply shortfall for awhile. That is what happened during the supply deficit in 2013-2014 (Figure 5). That deficit was created by flat production similar to what EIA predicts for the first 3 quarters of 2016.

What is different this time, however, is that net imports will reach zero in early 2017 because of decreasing imports from Canada and increasing exports. Add to that the challenge of replacing conventional gas depletion, and there is a much more serious supply problem than EIA’s already questionable forecast suggests.

Another big difference is that in 2013-2014, capital was freely available with average oil prices above $90 per barrel and average gas prices more than $4 per MBTU. Today, the oil and gas industry is in financial shambles with both oil and gas prices at very low levels, and it is unlikely that companies can raise the capital necessary to ramp up gas drilling quickly if at all.

Export plans of at least 7 bcfd by 2020 are not helpful considering the challenges of meeting domestic supply in coming years

The prospect of exports increasing to 13 bcfd by 2030 is even more troubling absent some new shale gas play that we don’t know about yet.

Higher Gas Prices Are Inevitable

A few years ago, the oil and gas industry convinced the world that the U.S. had 100 years of natural gas. Some of us cautioned that it is worth reading the fine print, that there is a difference between a resource and a reserve. The harsh light of reality eventually reveals that what seems too good to be true usually is.

The obvious solution to declining gas supply is higher prices.

The EIA’s STEO forecast calls for $3.17 per MBTU gas prices by December 2016 and for $3.62 by December 2017. Those prices will not support necessary drilling in legacy shale gas plays. EIA’sAEO 2015 reference case does not call for gas prices to reach $5 per mcf until 2025. We can’t afford to wait 9 years.

It is, therefore, inevitable that natural gas prices must increase sooner, preferably in the next 12 to 24 months. If oil prices remain low, a shale-gas revival may save the domestic E&P business. During the last supply deficit in 2014, gas prices averaged $4.36 per mcf compared to only $2.63 in 2015.

But it will take time for producers to reverse the decline in drilling and production. It may be difficult to raise capital for renewed drilling given the current distress in the oil and gas industry.

Something will have to give sooner than later. That will be natural gas export.

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China adds incentives for domestic natural gas production as imports increase

Rapid growth in China’s natural gas consumption has outpaced growth in its domestic natural gas production in recent years. China’s natural gas imports, both by pipeline and as liquefied natural gas (LNG), accounted for nearly half (45%) of China’s natural gas supply in 2018, an increase from 15% in 2010. To increase the domestic production of natural gas, the Chinese government has introduced incentives for several forms of natural gas production.

Natural gas production has recently grown in China largely because of increased development in low-permeability formations in the form of tight gas, shale gas, and to a lesser extent, coalbed methane. In September 2018, the Chinese State Council set a target of 19.4 billion cubic feet per day (Bcf/d) for domestic natural gas production in 2020. In 2018, China’s domestic natural gas production averaged 15.0 Bcf/d.

In June 2019, the Chinese government introduced a subsidy program that established new incentives for the production of natural gas from tight formations and extended existing subsidies for production from shale and coalbed methane resources. This subsidy is scheduled to be in effect through 2023. In addition to the changes in the subsidy program, the government allowed foreign companies to operate independently in the country’s oil and natural gas upstream sector.

China domestic natural gas production by type

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, based on China National Bureau of Statistics and IHS Markit

Production of tight gas, shale gas, and coalbed methane collectively accounted for 41% of China’s total domestic natural gas production in 2018. China has been developing tight gas from low-permeability formations since the 1970s, especially in the Ordos and Sichuan Basins. Tight gas production was negligible until 2010 when companies initiated an active drilling program that helped lower the drilling cost per vertical well and improve well productivity.

Shale gas development in China has focused on the Sichuan Basin: China National Petroleum Corporation’s (CNPC) subsidiary PetroChina operates two fields in the southern part of the basin and the China Petroleum and Chemical Corporation (Sinopec) operates one field in the eastern part of the basin. PetroChina and Sinopec have respectively committed to producing 1.16 Bcf/d and 0.97 Bcf/d of shale gas by 2020, which, if realized, would collectively double the country’s 2018 shale gas production level.

China's tight gas, shale gas, coalbed methane, and synthetic gas producing areas

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration

China’s coalbed methane development is concentrated in the Ordos and Qinshui Basins of Shanxi Province. These basins face significant challenges, including relatively low well productivity and relatively high production costs.

China also generates synthetic natural gas from coal, a source that accounted for 2% of China’s natural gas production in 2018. China’s synthetic gas projects involve gasifying coal into methane in coal-rich provinces, such as Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, and Shanxi. In 2016, the Chinese government hoped to reach 1.64 Bcf/d of coal-to-gas production capacity by 2020. China’s coal-to-gas production was less than 0.3 Bcf/d in 2018 as stricter environmental mandates have slowed down plant construction and increased the cost of further developing coal-to-gas.

October, 24 2019
The United States now exports crude oil to more destinations than it imports from

As U.S. crude oil export volumes have increased to an average of 2.8 million barrels per day (b/d) in the first seven months of 2019, the number of destinations (which includes countries, territories, autonomous regions, and other administrative regions) that receive U.S. exports has also increased. Earlier this year, the number of U.S. crude oil export destinations surpassed the number of sources of U.S. crude oil imports that EIA tracks.

In 2009, the United States imported crude oil from as many as of 37 sources per month. In the first seven months of 2019, the largest number of sources in any month fell to 27. As the number of sources fell, the number of destinations for U.S. crude oil exports rose. In the first seven months of 2019, the United States exported crude oil to as many as 31 destinations per month.

This rise in U.S. export destinations coincides with the late 2015 lifting of restrictions on exporting domestic crude oil. Before the restrictions were lifted, U.S. crude oil exports almost exclusively went to Canada. Between January 2016 (the first full month of unrestricted U.S. crude oil exports) and July 2019, U.S. crude oil production increased by 2.6 million b/d, and export volumes increased by 2.2 million b/d.

monthly U.S. crude oil production and exports

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Petroleum Supply Monthly

The United States has also been importing crude oil from fewer of these sources largely because of the increase in domestic crude oil production. Most of this increase has been relatively light-sweet crude oil, but most U.S. refineries are configured to process medium- to heavy-sour crude oil. U.S. refineries have accommodated this increase in production by displacing imports of light and medium crude oils from countries other than Canada and by increasing refinery utilization rates.

Conversely, the United States has exported crude oil to more destinations because of growing demand for light-sweet crude oil abroad. Several infrastructure changes have allowed the United States to export this crude oil. New, expanded, or reversed pipelines have been delivering crude oil from production centers to export terminals. Export terminals have been expanded to accommodate greater crude oil tanker traffic, larger crude oil tankers, and larger cargo sizes.

More stringent national and international regulations limiting the sulfur content of transportation fuels are also affecting demand for light-sweet crude oil. Many of the less complex refineries outside of the United States cannot process and remove sulfur from heavy-sour crude oils and are better suited to process light-sweet crude oil into transportation fuels with lower sulfur content.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s monthly export data for crude oil and petroleum products come from the U.S. Census Bureau. For export values, Census trade data records the destinations of trade volumes, which may not be the ultimate destinations of the shipments.

October, 23 2019
Recalibrating Singapore’s Offshore Marine Industry

The state investment firm Temasek Holdings has made an offer to purchase control of Singaporean conglomerate Keppel Corp for S$4.1 billion. News of this has reverberated around the island, sparking speculation about what the new ownership structure could bring – particularly in the Singaporean rig-building sector.

Temasek already owns 20.5% of Keppel Corp. Its offer to increase its stake to 51% for S$4.1 billion would see it gain majority shareholding, allowing a huge amount of strategic flexibility. The deal would be through Temasek’s wholly-owned subsidiary Kyanite Investment Holdings, offering S$7.35 per share of Keppel Corp, a 26% premium of the traded price at that point. The financial analyst community have remarked that the bid is ‘fair’ and ‘reasonable’, and there appears to be no political headwinds against the deal being carried out with the exception of foreign and domestic regulatory approval.

The implications of the deal are far-ranging. Keppel Corp’s business ranges from property to infrastructure to telecommunications, including Keppel Land and a partial stake in major Singapore telco M1. Temasek has already said that it does not intend to delist and privatise Keppel Corp, and has a long-standing history of not interfering or getting involved in the operations or decisions of its portfolio companies.

This might be different. Speculation is that this move, if successful could lead to a restructuring of the Singapore offshore and marine industry. Since 2015, Singapore’s rig-building industry has been in the doldrums as global oil prices tumbled. Although prices have recovered, cost-cutting and investment reticence have provided a slower recovery for the industry. In Singapore, this has affected the two major rigbuilders – Keppel O&M and its rival Sembcorp Marine. In 2018, Keppel O&M reported a loss of over SS$100 million (although much improved from its previous loss of over SS$800 million); Sembcorp Marine, too, faces a challenging market, with a net loss of nearly 50 million. Temasek itself is already a majority shareholder in Sembcorp Marine.

Once Keppel Corp is under Temasek’s control, this could lead to consolidation in the industry. There are many pros to this, mainly the merging of rig-building operations and shipyards will put Singapore is a stronger position against giant shipyards of China and South Korea, which have been on an asset buying spree. With the overhang of the Sete Brasil scandal over as both Keppel O&M and Sembcorp Marine have settled corruption allegations over drillship and rig contracts, a merger is now increasingly likely. It would sort of backtrack from Temasek’s recent direction in steering away from fossil fuel investments (it had decided to not participate in the upcoming Saudi Aramco IPO for environmental concerns) but strengthening the Singaporeans O&M industry has national interest implications. As a representative of Temasek said of its portfolio – ‘(we are trying to) re-purpose some businesses to try and grasp the demands of tomorrow.’ So, if there is to be a tomorrow, then Singapore’s two largest offshore players need to start preparing for that now in the face of tremendous competition. And once again it will fall on the Singaporean government, through Temasek, to facilitate an arranged marriage for the greater good.

Keppel and Sembcorp O&M at a glance:

Keppel Offshore & Marine, 2018

  • Revenue: S$1.88 billion (up from S$1.80 billion)
  • Net Profit: -S$109 million (up from -S$826 million)
  • Contracts secured: S$1.7 billion

Sembcorp Marine, 2018

  • Turnover: S$4.88 billion (up from S$3.03 billion)
  • Net Profit: -S$48 million (down from S$157 million)
  • Contracts secured: S$1.2 billion
October, 22 2019