Forecasting the price of natural gas is easy. The US Energy Information Agency does it regularly, and like all seasoned forecasters, it produces a slightly wobbly line trending slightly higher or lower. Based on its latest, we expect smooth sailing, with gently rising prices as is appropriate for the relaxing calm that reigns in the natural gas market. Alas, reality is a series of violent ups and down with sporadic and vicious spikes.
Today Japan brought its first nuclear reactor back on line, after having been nuclear-power free for two months. The government had stress-tested the reactor and had declared it safe—despite strong evidence to the contrary. Ironically, on the day that the reactor started generating electricity again, the Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission released its report on the Fukushima disaster—and it’s a doozy.
The fiasco playing out in the natural gas industry doesn’t happen often in a free market, and when it does happen, it’s usually short: namely, prices below production costs. In the shakeout, less efficient or poorly capitalized producers get wiped out. Part of capitalism that weeds out weaker elements through sweeps of creative destruction. But in natural gas, the price has been below production costs for years, and the damage is huge.
Dirt cheap natural gas has done wonders for America. Bene-ficiaries are scattered across the country: households with lower heating bills, industrial users, utilities, companies dreaming of building LNG export terminals to benefit from prices that are several times higher in the international markets. Yet it’s tearing up the very industry that is producing it, and capital destruction has reached epic proportions. But the bloody end is near.
The plight of natural gas driller Chesapeake Energy could almost make you feel sorry for CEO McClendon. He lost his chairmanship after his conflicted entanglements and an in-house hedge fund had seeped out. The company announced it may run out of cash next year. Fitch, in downgrading Chesapeake, estimated that the shortfall this year would reach $10 billion…. All due to the low price of natural gas and the ugly economics of fracking.
Nuclear power is galvanizing Japan, stirring up public discussions and outright dissent with demonstrations and all, a rare occurrence in Japan. It has divided the country in two: those who want nuclear power generation to resume so that a stranglehold can be lifted from the economy, and those who want a “nuclear-free” Japan. But there is no quick way out, even if everyone wanted it.
The fourth warmest winter on record, which curtailed the use of natural gas for heating, coincided with record production of natural gas. Storage facilities, filled to record levels for this time of the year, may soon reach capacity, forcing the industry to flare excess gas. This, doom-and-gloom theorists go, will force the price of gas to zero in the US. The point of maximum pain. But there’s a monumental shift, and demand is spiking.
The meltdowns at Fukushima that have caused so much havoc have also paralyzed Japan’s nuclear power industry. The last of its 54 reactors will be taken off line in May. “Deindustrialization” grips power-starved Japan. TEPCO, owner of the plant, is bailed out with trillions of yen in taxpayer money. And now, halfway around the world, in the EU, nuclear power is lining up to suck at the teat of the taxpayer, but ingeniously, those in other countries.
In early December, Christophe de Margerie, CEO of Total, the Exxon à la Française, shocked the French when he said that there was “no doubt” that a liter of gasoline would reach €2 and that the only question was when. He cited the calamities in the news at the time to justify the skyrocketing prices of oil and gasoline—source of Total’s mega profits. He was talking his book, obviously, which isn’t illegal, not even in France.
Natural gas is dirt cheap, hovering at a 10-year low. In the US, that is. In other parts of the world, natural gas is four, five times more expensive—a rare discrepancy in a globalized economy. But the US, largest producer in the world, stunningly, has no facilities to export it. So President Obama has made dirt-cheap natural gas a cornerstone of his energy policy, but investors are bloodied, and drilling activity is falling off a cliff.