In 2019, natural gas spot prices at the national benchmark Henry Hub in Louisiana averaged $2.57 per million British thermal units (MMBtu), about 60 cents per MMBtu lower than in 2018 and the lowest annual average price since 2016. Lower natural gas prices in 2019 supported higher consumption—particularly in the electric generation sector—and higher natural gas exports. Continued growth in domestic production of natural gas also supported lower natural gas prices throughout the year.
Monthly average natural gas prices at most key regional trading hubs in 2019 reached their highest levels in February, and they were relatively low and stable from April through December. In the Northeast, additional imports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) into New England limited price spikes during the winter of 2018–19. Despite a cold snap in the Midwest in February 2019, natural gas prices at Chicago Citygate were lower than during previous extreme weather events.
However, in the Pacific Northwest, unseasonably cold weather at the end of winter coupled with regional supply constraints and decreased storage inventories led to significant price spikes at the Northwest Sumas hub in March. Additional pipeline takeaway capacity in the Permian region eased some infrastructure constraints and increased regional prices at the Waha hub in western Texas after six consecutive months of prices lower than $1/MMBtu (March through August).
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, based on Natural Gas Intelligence
Natural gas consumption in the residential and commercial sectors increased by 2% in 2019 compared with 2018, based on the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) monthly data through October and estimates for November and December. Natural gas use in the electric generation sector also increased in 2019, particularly in July and August when a heat wave in the Midwest and the Northeast led to record-high generation by natural gas-fired power plants.
Lower summer natural gas prices, which averaged $2.33/MMBtu in June through August (the lowest summer average Henry Hub natural gas price since 1998), have supported higher natural gas-fired generation in the summer months.
Dry natural gas production has grown every year since 2016. Production increased by 7.5 billion cubic feet per day (Bcf/d) (9%) through the first 10 months of the year after record growth in 2018. Sustained growth in natural gas production put downward pressure on prices, which continued to decline for most of 2019.
Natural gas storage inventories ended the withdrawal season at the end of March at their lowest levels since 2014. However, record natural gas production growth supported near-record injection activity during the injection season through October. The injection season ended with the second-highest net injection volume since 2014.
Most new pipelines placed in service in 2019 were located in the South Central and Northeast regions. These pipelines provide additional takeaway capacity out of the Permian and Appalachian supply basins and will serve growing demand for LNG exports, pipeline exports to Mexico, and U.S. natural gas-fired power generation.
In 2019, natural gas exports—both by pipeline to Mexico and as LNG—continued to grow. U.S. natural gas exports to Mexico by pipeline averaged 5.1 Bcf/d in the first 10 months of 2019, 0.4 Bcf/d more than the 2018 average. Following an expansion in U.S. cross-border pipeline capacity, several new pipelines in Mexico continued to experience delays, limiting growth in exports.
U.S. LNG exports set a new record in 2019, averaging an estimated 5.0 Bcf/d (69% higher than in 2018) as the United States became the third-largest global LNG exporter. Several new LNG facilities were placed in service in 2019. Louisiana’s Cameron LNG placed its first liquefaction unit (referred to as a train) in service in May. Texas’s Freeport LNG exported its first cargo from the newly commissioned Train 1 in September, followed by its first export cargo from Train 2 in December. Corpus Christi LNG (also in Texas) commissioned its second train in July. In December, Georgia’s Elba Island placed in service the first three of its moveable modular liquefaction system (MMLS) units and exported its first LNG cargo.
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In 2021, the makeup of renewables has also changed drastically. Technologies such as solar and wind are no longer novel, as is the idea of blending vegetable oils into road fuels or switching to electric-based vehicles. Such ideas are now entrenched and are not considered enough to shift the world into a carbon neutral future. The new wave of renewables focus on converting by-products from other carbon-intensive industries into usable fuels. Research into such technologies has been pioneered in universities and start-ups over the past two decades, but the impetus of global climate goals is now seeing an incredible amount of money being poured into them as oil & gas giants seek to rebalance their portfolios away from pure hydrocarbons with a goal of balancing their total carbon emissions in aggregate to zero.
Traditionally, the European players have led this drive. Which is unsurprising, since the EU has been the most driven in this acceleration. But even the US giants are following suit. In the past year, Chevron has poured an incredible amount of cash and effort in pioneering renewables. Its motives might be less than altruistic, shareholders across America have been particularly vocal about driving this transformation but the net results will be positive for all.
Chevron’s recent efforts have focused on biomethane, through a partnership with global waste solutions company Brightmark. The joint venture Brightmark RNG Holdings operations focused on convert cow manure to renewable natural gas, which are then converted into fuel for long-haul trucks, the very kind that criss-cross the vast highways of the US delivering goods from coast to coast. Launched in October 2020, the joint venture was extended and expanded in August, now encompassing 38 biomethane plants in seven US states, with first production set to begin later in 2021. The targeting of livestock waste is particularly crucial: methane emissions from farms is the second-largest contributor to climate change emissions globally. The technology to capture methane from manure (as well as landfills and other waste sites) has existed for years, but has only recently been commercialised to convert methane emissions from decomposition to useful products.
This is an arena that another supermajor – BP – has also made a recent significant investment in. BP signed a 15-year agreement with CleanBay Renewables to purchase the latter’s renewable natural gas (RNG) to be mixed and sold into select US state markets. Beginning with California, which has one of the strictest fuel standards in the US and provides incentives under the Low Carbon Fuel Standard to reduce carbon intensity – CleanBay’s RNG is derived not from cows, but from poultry. Chicken manure, feathers and bedding are all converted into RNG using anaerobic digesters, providing a carbon intensity that is said to be 95% less than the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions of pure fossil fuels and non-conversion of poultry waste matter. BP also has an agreement with Gevo Inc in Iowa to purchase RNG produced from cow manure, also for sale in California.
But road fuels aren’t the only avenue for large-scale embracing of renewables. It could take to the air, literally. After all, the global commercial airline fleet currently stands at over 25,000 aircraft and is expected to grow to over 35,000 by 2030. All those planes will burn a lot of fuel. With the airline industry embracing the idea of AAF (or Alternative Aviation Fuels), developments into renewable jet fuels have been striking, from traditional bio-sources such as palm or soybean oil to advanced organic matter conversion from agricultural waste and manure. Chevron, again, has signed a landmark deal to advance the commercialisation. Together with Delta Airlines and Google, Chevron will be producing a batch of sustainable aviation fuel at its El Segundo refinery in California. Delta will then use the fuel, with Google providing a cloud-based framework to analyse the data. That data will then allow for a transparent analysis into carbon emissions from the use of sustainable aviation fuel, as benchmark for others to follow. The analysis should be able to confirm whether or not the International Air Transport Association (IATA)’s estimates that renewable jet fuel can reduce lifecycle carbon intensity by up to 80%. And to strengthen the measure, Delta has pledged to replace 10% of its jet fuel with sustainable aviation fuel by 2030.
In a parallel, but no less pioneering lane, France’s TotalEnergies has announced that it is developing a 100% renewable fuel for use in motorsports, using bioethanol sourced from residues produced by the French wine industry (among others) at its Feyzin refinery in Lyon. This, it believes, will reduce the racing sports’ carbon emissions by an immediate 65%. The fuel, named Excellium Racing 100, is set to debut at the next season of the FIA World Endurance Championship, which includes the iconic 24 Hours of Le Mans 2022 race.
But Chevron isn’t done yet. It is also falling back on the long-standing use of vegetable oils blended into US transport fuels by signing a wide-ranging agreement with commodity giant Bunge. Called a ‘farmer-to-fuelling station’ solution, Bunge’s soybean processing facilities in Louisiana and Illinois will be the source of meal and oil that will be converted by Chevron into diesel and jet fuel. With an investment of US$600 million, Chevron will assist Bunge in doubling the combined capacity of both plants by 2024, in line with anticipated increases in the US biofuels blending mandates.
Even ExxonMobil, one of the most reticent of the supermajors to embrace renewables wholesale, is getting in on the action. Its Imperial Oil subsidiary in Canada has announced plans to commercialise renewable diesel at a new facility near Edmonton using plant-based feedstock and hydrogen. The venture does only target the Canadian market – where political will to drive renewable adoption is far higher than in the US – but similar moves have already been adopted by other refiners for the US market, including major investments by Phillips 66 and Valero.
Ultimately, these recent moves are driven out of necessity. This is the way the industry is moving and anyone stubborn enough to ignore it will be left behind. Combined with other major investments driven by European supermajors over the past five years, this wider and wider adoption of renewable can only be better for the planet and, eventually, individual bottom lines. The renewables ball is rolling fast and is only gaining momentum.
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