On Friday, when stocks were plunging, natural gas soared 9.6% to $5.18 per million British thermal units (MMBtu) at the Henry Hub. Up 20% for the week. The highest close since June 2010.
Back then, the “shale gas revolution” had turned into a crazy no-holds-barred land-grab and fracking boom that veered into overproduction and a “glut” – accompanied by a historic collapse in price. The US could not export its excess production due to export restrictions and the lack of major LNG export terminals. By April 2012, when the Japanese were paying around $17 per MMBtu for LNG on the world markets, natural gas in the US hit a decade low of $1.92 per MMBtu, and predictions that it would go to zero showed up in the mainstream media. That was the bottom.
But nothing can be priced below the cost of production forever. By Friday, natural gas was up 170% from the April 2012 low. Turns out, only a low price can cure a low price.
The low price caused demand to creep up.
Gas exports via pipeline to Mexico have been growing, especially since additional pipeline capacity went into service last year. Mexico is switching power generation from using its own oil to cheap US natural gas. This allows it to export its more valuable oil to the US. Ka-ching. But building gas-fired generating capacity is a slow-moving process.
Other exports are also moving forward – in people’s heads. There are pipelines between the US and Canada, but the US is a net importer. Exports of LNG are at this point still a pipedream, so to speak, though deals are being made, contingent on getting government approvals to export LNG. It’s going to take years before LNG can be exported in large quantities.
But the low price had short-term and structural impacts. Utilities dispatched electricity generation from their coal-fired plants to their gas-fired plants. And there have been structural changes: utilities have built gas-fired power plants and have retired – not mothballed! – their oldest, most inefficient, and most polluting coal-fired power plants. Global industrial companies have been building plants in the US for energy-intensive processes and for processes that use natural gas as feed stock. Even natural gas in transportation is picking up.
The low price destroyed the business model for drillers.
Thousands of unprofitable wells litter the land. Many billions were written off. Real money that had been recklessly thrown around during the boom disappeared into the ground. Investors were lured with false promises. The bloodletting in the industry was enormous. Some of the largest drillers have pulled back from drilling for dry natural gas. Most of the wells that are still being drilled are in fields that are rich in natural-gas liquids and oil, which sell for much higher prices and make wells profitable. Dry natural gas has become a byproduct. In the immensely productive Bakken shale-oil field in North Dakota, where gas occurs along with oil, 30% of it is flared – burned at the well as a waste product. The low price doesn’t justify building pipelines to haul it off.
But shale gas wells have sharp decline rates, and new wells need to be drilled constantly to make up for the decline in older wells. These days, not enough wells are being drilled, and production in all gas plays combined – except for the Marcellus – is already in slight decline. The only production boom left is in the Marcellus: the “shale gas revolution” in the US is now a one-pony show.
In January 2012, according to Baker Hughes, there were 143 rigs drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus – the most prolific parts of which are in Pennsylvania. Today, there are 86. But during the drilling boom, someone forgot to install sufficient pipeline infrastructure. So, wells were shut in, perhaps thousands of them, a giant reservoir waiting for takeaway capacity. That was 2012. Last year, part of a new pipeline network went into service, and bottlenecks were removed, and the gas started flowing to New York City and other places. Drilling is down. Production – the delivery of gas to the markets – is soaring!
How long can it last? Well decline rates in the Marcellus are as steep as elsewhere, and this sudden burst in production, if not supported by a new bout of drilling, will taper off as it has in other fields. And that’s today’s one-pony show of the US “shale gas revolution.”
Then cold fronts swept across the country.
These polar vortices, as they’re now referred to for additional flair, have caused demand for gas as heating fuel to spike to record highs. And more bitter cold weather is being forecast. Natural gas in underground storage dropped to 2,423 billion cubic feet (Bcf) for the week ending January 17. The last time storage levels were this low during an equivalent week was in January 2005!
At the time, gas was selling for $12 to $14 per MMBtu and hit an all-time high of $15.40 in December that year. But demand has changed. In 2013, demand was over 18% higher than in 2005; this year, it might be over 20% higher [my article from nine days ago…. Natural Gas Squeeze? “Panic hasn’t ensued just yet”].
And the big money has jumped into the fray.
For years, the favorite game was to short natural gas, playing the glut for all it was worth, a sport that has gotten very complex and, if you get the timing wrong by a few hours, very expensive. Some of the spike late Friday, and some of the action all week, was due to a hard squeeze on these folks – as the big money arrived en masse.
On Wednesday, the big money went public. As reported by MarketWatch, Citi analysts wrote that, “With tight fundamentals, $5 gas is not impossible.” What had been obvious for a while, showed up in the media: “Strong demand is expected to push gas inventories to very low levels with cold weather lingering.” And the price took off once again.
Now everyone is bent over weather data, trying to figure out what nastiness the winter will still serve up, and they’re betting on the weather because cold snaps happen relatively fast and are observable. Watching the fundamentals is like watching paint dry. But it’s the fundamentals that have changed the equation. The polar vortices are merely speeding up the calculus.
Natural gas is famous for its head fakes, unexpected plunges when it should rise, and inexplicable rises when it should drop. It’s being manipulated in a myriad ways. It’s always a bet on the weather, except when it’s not. It can turn around in a second and cause whiplash. It’s a seatbelt-mandatory commodity. And once every few years, there is a panic, and it spikes to dizzying highs.