By Tom Whipple
Two weeks ago we discussed the impact that the polar vortex was having on our natural gas supplies and noted that our stocks of natural gas were already 500 billion cubic feet below where they should be for this time of year. Two weeks ago the forecasters were optimistic that the record winter of 2013-2014 was over and that things would soon be warming up.
It turned out however that the forecasts were wrong and yet more frigid weather poured down across the U.S., drawing down our stocks of natural gas and heating oil still further and interrupting the drilling and fracking of new shale gas and shale oil wells. New forecasts say that the abnormally cold weather is likely to continue through the rest of March and on into early April.
We won’t have the final figures on how much natural gas was drawn from our stocks this winter for another month, but it is starting to look as if our stocks, which normally range from a high of 3.8 trillion cubic feet to a low of 1.8 trillion, could fall to as low as 750 billion and that the total drawdown this winter will be close to 3 trillion cubic feet as compared to the normal 2 trillion. Since November the U.S. has been consuming an average of 91 billion cubic feet of natural gas each day which is 13 percent higher than the five-year average for this time of year.
The key question is whether this can be replaced in time for the next heating season or the ones after that.
In addition to increasing our consumption, the cold weather has also slowed our domestic production of natural gas. Our natural gas imports from Canada, about 7 billion cubic feet per day, are down about 10 percent from last year. It is even colder in Canada and they need their gas to keep warm before exporting any surplus to the U.S.
You will recall that our shale gas wells, which now supply about 40 percent of our total natural gas consumption, deplete very quickly so that many new wells need to be drilled and fracked each year just to keep production level. There are very few conventional gas wells being drilled these days and production of shale gas other than from the Marcellus shale in the Appalachians is nearly flat. The rapid pace our gas wells are depleting means that the U.S. now needs about 19 billion cubic feet per day of new gas production just to keep up with our annual average consumption of 71 billion cubic feet per day.
As a goodly share of this 19 billion cubic feet per day of new natural gas production must come from the mountains of Pennsylvania and West Virginia, it should be apparent that this location is not conducive to drilling and fracking during the cold and snowy winter months. A recent weekly EIA report shows natural gas production in the eastern U.S down by 30 percent from last year.
Last week the Department of Energy issued a report discussing how we are going to overcome this trillion cubic foot deficit in our natural gas stockpiles before the beginning of next November’s withdrawal season. The Department starts with the assumption that the drawdown is not going to be as bad as it currently seems and then posits that if everything goes right – higher production and lower consumption – we might be able to inject a record 2.5 trillion cubic feet into our storage caverns this summer. Even this will leave us about 500 billion cubic feet below where we would like to be next fall.
Natural gas consumption during the next seven months is problematic. If temperatures are unusually high, a lot of natural gas will go into electric power stations to keep us cool. If it is a cool summer, then we might have considerable surpluses that could be injected into our storage caverns. The relatively low price of natural gas, currently about $4.50 per million BTU’s, is another problem.
Some independent analysts say this is well below what it costs to produce shale gas these days and that producers are solvent only because they are making an effort to produce “wet” gas that contains valuable natural gas liquids such as propane which can be sold for enough to offset the loss on the “dry” gas which is what keeps us warm. Gas coming from the Marcellus shale, mostly in Pennsylvania, is generally dry so that there is a good chance that many producers are simply losing money on their natural gas production while waiting for higher prices that will allow profitability.
Looking ahead for the next few years, questions are starting to arise about the long-term sustainability of our natural gas production. This winter will leave us with a major deficit in our stockpiles which unless the weather cooperates is not likely to be made up in the immediate future. Unusually hot summers or cold winters will make rebuilding of inventories difficult or even impossible.
Thanks to the hype about the 100 years-worth of natural gas we are supposed to have in reserve, everybody seems to have an idea as to how to use this bonanza more quickly. Some want to send LNG to Europe so it can reduce reliance on Russian gas. This of course requires liquefaction facilities to make LNG that can’t become operational for many years. Our imports from Canada are shrinking. Our exports via pipeline to Mexico are increasing. Many want to convert our fleet of 18-wheelers to natural gas. The EPA wants to replace the dirtiest of our coal burning power plants with natural gas and there are those who believe that nuclear power plants are too dangerous to keep around.
If even some of these additional uses come to fruition before the end of the decade, our natural gas could become very expensive and even scarce.