Boundless Natural Gas, Boundless Opportunities: Interview with EIA Chief
The Energy Information Agency (EIA) has predicted that natural gas production in the US will continue to grow at an impressive pace. Right now output is close to 70 billion cubic feet a day and is expected to reach over 100 billion cubic feet per day by 2040. The trend is likely to continue without hitting a geologic "peak", and along with this trend will come new marketing opportunities for America.
In an exclusive interview with Oilprice.com, EIA Administrator Adam Sieminski discusses:
- What's at stake in lifting the US crude export ban
- Whether lifting the ban is inevitable
- Why energy-related CO2 emissions will likely climb this year
- What we can expect from US coal output through 2014
- Why US natural gas production will continue to grow strongly
- Where we can expect (unexpectedly) new production to come from
- Why Alaska just might surprise us
- Where the biggest new shale opportunities lie
- How production increases might come from 'non-shale' formations
- The potential for Colombian shale
- What to expect from Mexico's reforms
- What the Panama Canal expansion really means
- Why we will see new marketing opportunities for the US
Interview by James Stafford of Oilprice.com
Oilprice.com: US mainstream media are heralding the debate over lifting the US crude oil export ban as potentially one of the most critical for this year. While most agree this is not likely to happen anytime soon, is it an eventuality?
Adam Sieminski: When I first took office at the EIA, I said that light sweet crude oil production was growing very rapidly, and that it would ultimately have a number of impacts on the energy infrastructure in the US; for instance, that we would see changes in things like movement of oil by rail. We would see changes in refinery configurations designed to deal with light sweet crude. The Gulf Coast refineries in the US over the past decade were upgraded to run heavy sour imports, and so there are issues with the ability of refineries in the US to handle rapid increases in light sweet crude oil production.
I noted at the time that at some point, policymakers were going to be confronted with all of these changes resulting from the enormous shift in thinking about US production growth. Five or 10 years ago, everybody thought that US oil production would just go down, and demand would always go up. Now we have in the EIA's forecast over the next five years very strong growth in crude oil production and weak growth -- if not negative trends -- going on in gasoline and liquid fuels demand. This creates an interesting atmosphere.
Is lifting the crude export ban inevitable? I'm not sure that anything is inevitable. Certainly what I've learned in the last five years is that the inevitable declines in production and growth in demand didn't come true.
OP: What are the congressional hurdles faced here?
Adam Sieminski: I don't know that there's a hurdle. That's a question that's going to be dealt with by policymakers. Energy policy issues generally tend to involve environmental concerns, national security concerns, and economic concerns.
The biggest hurdle that congress faces is just having good information on future trends in supply and demand, refinery configurations and pipeline and railroad transportation infrastructure.
OP: What would be the consequences of lifting this ban, for the industry, for refiners, for consumers?
Adam Sieminski: Well, that's going to be part of the debate. I don't have the answer to that, and I doubt that anybody at this point has the complete answer to that question. What is the economic impact? Does it increase jobs or not? What is the environmental impact of producing, moving and refining the crude oil? What are the national security implications? Is it better to keep the oil here, or to move it into global markets where it might have an ameliorating effect on volatility? There are a lot of questions, so I'm not going to try to pre-judge that debate.
OP: The EIA has noted that after two years of declining production, US coal output is expected to increase in 2014, forecast to rise almost 4%, as higher natural gas prices make coal more competitive for power generation. At the same time, there is concern about the EPA's proposed new carbon emissions standards for power plants, which would make it impossible for new coal-fired plants to be built without the implementation of carbon capture and sequestration technology, or "clean-coal" tech. Is this a feasible strategy in your opinion?
Adam Sieminski: Well, the facts as you laid them out are certainly what the EIA is looking at. Natural gas prices have gone up, so in 2013, we already saw some recovery in coal at electric utilities. As a consequence, energy-related carbon dioxide emissions actually climbed in 2013 and probably are going to do so again in 2014 for the reasons that you stated.
Longer term, even without changes by the Environmental Protection Agency, there'll be coal retirements, and the amount of coal being burned in the US will eventually come below the amount of electricity being generated by natural gas. So sometime after the year 2030, we will have more electricity in the US being produced from natural gas than from coal.
OP: What can we expect from US onshore natural gas production over the next two years; over the next five years? And where will production increases offset declines?
Adam Sieminski: Well, the EIA has been pretty clear on this in our Annual Energy Outlook Reference case for 2014, which we published in mid-December. We reiterated what we said the previous year: natural gas production in the US is going to continue to grow very strongly. We are close to 70 billion cubic feet a day of output now. That number will be over 100 billion cubic feet a day by 2040. Shale gas will be easily 50% or more of production by 2040.
We also see increases in natural gas production from geologic formations that we don't consider to be shale gas. We think that there might also be some production, believe it or not, from Alaska, because the economics ultimately will favor construction of an LNG facility in Alaska that would allow production from the associated gas in the North Slope of Alaska.
Just in the last five years, we've seen natural gas production in the US from shale go from about five billion cubic feet a day to nearly 30 billion cubic feet a day--a huge increase. A lot of that is coming from places like the Haynesville -- and more recently the Marcellus in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. In our view, those production trends are going to continue without the likelihood of running into a plateau from a geologic standpoint.
OP: How do you see future extraction, development and commercialization of oil and gas resources in the Americas playing out over the next 5-10 years?
Adam Sieminski: Well, the big new opportunities, I think--certainly in the US and Canada--lie in the development of shale resources. There are oil and gas shale resources in places like Argentina, Mexico, Columbia, and elsewhere across the Americas. Whether or not the very rapid development of shale resources in the US can be duplicated in a lot of other countries -- even in the Americas -- remains to be seen. Certainly there has been some interesting progress in developing shale resources in Canada and Argentina.
I've been hearing from many people that they're quite hopeful there will be developments in shale in Colombia, and given the constitutional changes that have now been agreed in Mexico, that opens up an opportunity for Mexico to step into this area.
One of the things that is happening is the increase in oil production in the US and the fact that we have very sophisticated refineries with very strong technology, while relatively low natural gas prices are allowing us to run our refineries at higher utilization rates and dispose of surplus products -- by exporting petroleum products like gasoline and diesel fuel -- into Latin America and Canada.
In a sense, this creates a manufacturing opportunity for the US to take a raw material, process it, and sell it abroad. It also fits in pretty well with the fact that a number of countries in Latin America have had difficulty in building and upgrading their own refineries. So it's opened up a marketing opportunity for the United States to take advantage of.
OP: What can we expect from Mexico's recently adopted energy reforms and what regional effect could this have?
Adam Sieminski: Well the Mexican government and Pemex, the state oil company, are very excited about the opportunities they see for Mexico to increase its production and to take advantage of some of the new technologies that are available through cooperation with non-Mexican companies. They believe that it is going to be instrumental in reversing some of the difficulties they've had in oil production and natural gas production.
It certainly looks to the EIA as something that we're going to have to watch very carefully when considering the longer-term outlook for Mexican energy production.
We actually bumped up the Mexican numbers because of the opportunities we think will be created by constitutional reform there. If the implementation of that proceeds along the lines that the Mexicans are considering, I think we'll probably have to look at it again.
OP: In its latest report, the EIA notes that the Americas accounted for 20% of global natural gas trade, and while 80% of that was via pipeline, the rest was traded as LNG. How do you see this proportion changing over the next 5-10 years?
Adam Sieminski: Well, I suspect that we're going to see more of both. Our longer-term outlook shows US pipeline exports of natural gas to Mexico going up, and we also see LNG exports from the United States increasing. We're not responsible for permitting. What we try to do is look at the economics. We run our national energy modeling system to basically say, "What would the economics do if you let them run?" And that shows we're likely to see increases in exports of both LNG and pipeline gas.
Interestingly, the model also says that there's plenty of production to do that and still allow demand in the US to go up considerably. We're seeing demand increases in natural gas use by refineries; it's a big refinery fuel. And in the industrial sector, we see significant gains in natural gas consumption occurring in areas like bulk chemicals, food processing, and elsewhere. And then the biggest increases in natural gas may come from electric utilities, which will likely be using more natural gas relative to coal to provide electricity growth in the United States.
OP: Is the US Department of Energy moving too quickly or too slowly to approve LNG exports to non-FTA countries?
Adam Sieminski: I think that the Department of Energy's Department of Fossil Energy, which is responsible for permits, is moving exactly the way it should under the law to make the kinds of findings necessary from a legal standpoint. I wouldn't characterize it as too fast or too slow. I would say that from what I can see, it's just right given the legal framework.
OP: When could we expect the US to become a net gas exporter?
Adam Sieminski: The EIA's forecast is that the US will become a net exporter of natural gas before the end of this decade.
We're already a net exporter of coal. In terms of electricity, most of our trade is with Canada, and that never really seems to have been much of an issue. The US is also a net exporter of petroleum products, so we now export more gasoline and diesel fuel than we import. We import a lot of oil products, particularly into the East and West Coasts. But we are a big exporter, mostly from the Gulf Coast, with the increase in refinery utilization down there. The overall picture now is one in which the US trade deficit is being reduced by growing oil and petroleum product exports.
The only big outstanding question is: could the US potentially be a net exporter of crude oil? In the EIA's Reference case forecast, that doesn't seem likely. Despite the fact that our production is rising while demand is falling, we're still importing about five million barrels a day net of of crude oil and products. It doesn't seem likely that net importsd are going to go to zero--at least not given the facts as we currently see them. It's possible, in a high petroleum resources case combined with a technology and policy-driven low demand case, but not probable.
One thing you want to keep in mind is what it would mean, exactly, if the US were completely self-sufficient in energy. Some people like to use the phrase, "energy independence." We would still be part of a global trading system in energy, and particularly petroleum products and crude oil. And if oil prices go up globally, they're going to go up in the United States. If there's a geopolitical problem somewhere or a weather problem somewhere -- anything -- the US would be impacted just as it has always been. The US has a lot of interest in what's going on around the world, in the Middle East and elsewhere, regardless of whether it is independent or self-sufficient in fuels. Those political and economic interests will remain whether we become an exporter or not.
OP: What role will the expansion of the Panama Canal play in this?
Adam Sieminski: What they're doing is widening the Panama Canal. They'll make the Canal itself wider and the locks longer, and the net result will be the potential to save in transportation costs through the use of larger oil tankers and LNG tankers. This offers an opportunity to reduce the costs associated with global trade. It is something that I know Panama and all of the customers who use the Panama Canal are very interested in seeing happen. There have been some cost and labor issues, but I'm sure those will be resolved and this expansion will eventually be completed. When that happens, it's going to reduce the cost of moving goods back and forth between the Atlantic and the Pacific, and that's going to apply particularly to things like liquefied natural gas and oil.
By James Stafford of Oilprice.com