By Irina Slav
-- As natural gas demand around the world breaks new records, U.S. shale producers are struggling to keep up with demand. -- While natural gas prices in the United States fell after a railway strike was averted last week, it looks likely that prices both at home and abroad will spike this winter. -- A hotter-than-expected summer and a lack of alternative energy sources have left U.S. inventories below the seasonal average. Last week, the media rushed to report that natural gas prices in the United States had fallen sharply after trade unions and railway companies reached a tentative deal that averted a potentially devastating strike.
Indeed, natural gas prices fell by nearly a dollar per million British thermal units, helped by a respectable build in inventories. And yet, inventories remain below the seasonal average, exports are running at record rates, and producers are beginning to struggle to meet demand, both at home and abroad.
Reuters’ John Kemp wrote in a recent column that domestic and international gas consumption had risen to record highs, and shale producers—the ones that account for the bulk of U.S. natural gas output—were having a hard time catching up with this demand.
Meanwhile, although higher on a weekly basis, inventories remained at the second-lowest for this time of the year for the last 12 years, Reuters’ market analyst noted. He also added there were no signs of any improvement in the level of inventories despite the rise in prices.
None of this suggests lower prices for natural gas are coming to either the United States or international markets as the northern hemisphere heads into winter. On the contrary, the latest figures suggest more financial pain for gas consumers. And they confirm, to an extent, forecasts made earlier this year.
In the spring, the principals of investment firm Goehring & Rozencwajg said U.S. gas prices will converge with international prices towards the end of 2022. They noted something few other analysts tend to mention: the concentration of much of U.S. gas production in a handful of fields, with just two—Marcellus and Haynesville—accounting for as much as 40 percent of the total.
The Permian contributes another 12 percent of the U.S. total gas output, and the rig count in the Permian has been down for two weeks in a row, according to the latest data. Less drilling means less associated gas to add to the national total.
Meanwhile, on the demand side, electricity generation in the United States is seen reaching a record high this year, Kemp noted in his column, driven by the post-pandemic economic rebound. A hotter summer also contributed. A cold winter would certainly push gas consumption even higher.
Another contributor is the lack of alternative sources of electricity generation: coal plants are being retired, and droughts in many parts of the country have compromised its hydropower capacity, the Reuters analyst also noted.
While this is happening at home, demand for gas continues strong across the globe, too, as everyone seeks to stock up on fuel for the winter. U.S. energy companies are exporting liquefied natural gas at record rates. And disgruntlement at home is beginning to rear its head.
“We appreciate that the [Joe] Biden administration has been working with European allies to expand fuel exports to Europe. A similar effort should be made for New England,” a group of governors from New England wrote in a letter to Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm this summer, per a Financial Times report.
The governors then went on to call on the administration to make sure there was enough LNG for American consumers, essentially asking politicians to reduce LNG exports. This does not bode well for balance in the U.S. gas market.
In May, John Kilduff from Again Capital told CNBC he expected gas prices to top $10 per mmBtu and maybe reach $12 to $14. “This is a commodity that trades parabolically a lot. It’s no stranger to parabolic moves up and down. It’s incredibly volatile, and it also has the ability to reset. We could get to $10 or $12 and if you have a cool August, then you could be down below $8 again,” he said at the time.
The Energy Information Administration this month revised its gas price forecast for the full year upwards, seeing the commodity average $9 per mmBtu in the final quarter before falling to $6 per mmBtu in 2023. The decline would come as a result of rising local gas production, the EIA noted.
In the meantime, however, until this increase in production materializes to a degree that begins to affect prices, there seems to be only one way they will be going: up. With heating season around the corner in both Europe and the United States and with a lot of people in both places using gas for heating, the price outlook for gas does not look good from a consumer’s perspective. It does look good from a gas exporter’s perspective, however.
It is unlikely that U.S. gas prices will climb anywhere near European levels, but they are up by a whopping 300 percent from a few years ago when gas was cheap because it was abundant. That sort of price increase affects everything along the supply chain that involves electricity produced using gas, sending ripples across the economy. And the more gas utilities use for lack of reliable alternatives, the longer the energy-driven inflation will continue.