More fracking, higher risks to the public; could drive up costs to manufacturers
WASHINGTON — A domestic natural gas boom already has lowered US energy prices while stoking fears of environmental disaster. Now US producers are poised to ship vast quantities of gas overseas as energy companies seek permits for proposed export projects that could set off a renewed frenzy of the much-debated kind of drilling known as fracking.
Expanded drilling is unlocking enormous reserves of crude oil and natural gas, offering the potential of moving the country closer to its decades-long quest for energy independence. Yet as the industry looks to profit from foreign markets, there is the spectre of higher prices at home and increased manufacturing costs for products from plastics to fertilizers.
Companies such as Exxon Mobil and Sempra Energy are seeking federal permits for more than 20 export projects that could handle as much as 29 billion cubic feet of natural gas a day.
If approved, the resulting export boom could lead to further increases in hydraulic fracturing, a drilling technique also known as fracking. It has allowed companies to gain access to huge stores of natural gas underneath states from Colorado to New York, but it also has raised widespread concerns about alleged groundwater contamination and even earthquakes.
The drilling boom has helped boost US natural gas production by one-third since 2005, with production reaching an all-time high of 25.3 trillion cubic feet last year, according to the US Energy Information Administration.
In recent months, however, production has begun to level off as the glut of natural gas keeps US prices down. In response, producers have begun pushing to export the fuel to Europe and Asia, where prices are far higher.
Approval of all the projects currently under review by the Energy Department could result in the export of more than 40% of current US production of liquefied natural gas, or LNG, which is gas that’s been converted to liquid form to make it easier to store or transport.
US officials also must consider competition from countries such as Canada and Australia, where new LNG export terminals also are being proposed. The facilities cost billions of dollars and take years to complete.
The prospect of a major expansion of US gas exports has tantalized business groups and lawmakers from both main political parties, and they’re urging the Obama administration to move faster to approve the projects as a way to create thousands of jobs and spur economic growth. Increased exports also would help offset the nation’s enormous trade deficit.
But consumer groups and some manufacturers that use natural gas oppose expanded exports, saying they could drive up domestic prices and make manufacturing more expensive. Many environmental groups also oppose LNG exports because of fears that increased drilling could lead to environmental damage.
“Exporting natural gas will have serious implications for public health, the environment and climate change,” said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club environmental group. “Building these terminals means lots of new fracking, and more fracking means more risks for Americans.”
Bill Cooper, president of the Center for Liquefied Natural Gas, an industry group, called natural gas a safe, clean-burning alternative to coal and oil. “LNG exports will create jobs, increase government revenue and benefit consumers.”
The administration has not said whether it will approve the projects. The issue is among the main challenges for Ernest Moniz, President Barack Obama’s nominee to be energy secretary.
Federal law requires the Energy Department to determine that projects are in the public interest before granting export permits to countries that do not have free-trade agreements with the US.
A recent study commissioned by the department concluded that exporting natural gas would benefit the US economy even if it leads to higher domestic prices for the fuel, as is likely.
US-based Dow Chemical Co. and other manufacturers have criticized that study, saying it relied on 2-year-old data that doesn’t account for increased demand for natural gas by manufacturers, trucking fleets and power plants.
Dow, which uses natural gas to power its plants and make products from plastics to pharmaceuticals, has argued against unfettered exports and said that could lead to price spikes that could harm the US economy.
But John Felmy, chief economist for the American Petroleum Institute, the largest lobbying group for the oil and gas industry, said restricting trade to control prices “is bad for the economy” and could result in lower domestic investment and production, hampering jobs and economic growth.
Kevin Book, an analyst for ClearView Energy Partners, a research and consulting firm, predicted that the administration will approve some new exports, but nowhere near the 20 projects that are pending before the Energy Department.
Only one US license has been granted so far, to Texas-based Cheniere Energy Inc. Proposals are pending from energy giants such as Exxon Mobil and Conoco Phillips.