After a historically strong 2017, the U.S. is poised to become a consistent net exporter of natural gas for the first time in six decades.
Despite ongoing improvements to energy efficiency in a variety of sectors, total global energy demand is expected to grow by 30% between now and 2040. While renewable energy sources — especially solar power — are likely to become cost-effective at scale during this time, oil and natural gas will likely retain their primacy for the foreseeable future.
That said, the landscape for fossil fuels — and natural gas in particular — is in the midst of a significant reorganization. Most significantly, the United States is poised to become a net exporter of natural gas for the first time since 1957 after 2017 witnessed a string of months in which the volume of natural gas leaving the country outpaced the volume of natural gas coming in.
In fact, this landmark trade surplus has been coming down the pipeline for several years now. Domestic natural gas production has ballooned from 55 billion cubic feet per day (Bcf/d) in 2008 to 72.5 Bcf/d in 2016, making the U.S. the world’s largest producer of natural gas since at least 2009.
Since the vast majority of U.S.-produced natural gas — over 96% in 2016 — is consumed domestically, however, the conditions for a natural gas trade surplus have, until recently, failed to materialize. As foreign and domestic markets for natural gas undergo a series of modest but impactful shifts, this is starting to change.
New Opportunities for Overseas Exports
Within the U.S., the opening of Cheniere Energy Partners’ Sabine Pass liquefaction plant in early 2016 provided a marked boost to the country’s natural gas export capacity. Natural gas can be transported in its natural state through pipelines, but in order to be safely transported overseas via tanker, it must be cooled to -260℉, at which point it becomes liquefied natural gas (LNG). Unlike natural gas in its gaseous state, LNG is non-toxic and non-corrosive, and it occupies 1/600th of the volume of normal natural gas.
The Sabine Pass facility is currently the only operational liquefaction plant in the country, and its four supercooling “trains” boast an impressive 18 million tons per annum nameplate capacity. A fifth train is set to open during the second half of 2019, which will add another 4.5 million tons per annum to the facility’s export capacity.
With several new liquefaction plants — including Freeport LNG’s Quintana Island facility, Kinder Morgan’s Elba Island facility, and a second Cheniere facility in Corpus Christi, Texas — set to begin operations over the next 18 months, the U. S. has an opportunity to send its natural gas exports to a variety of overseas markets with high demand for natural gas, particularly in East Asia.
Meeting Mexico’s Growing Demand for Natural Gas
Mexico’s rapidly increasing demand is the most significant factor driving the U.S.’s transformation into a net exporter of natural gas. According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), “Natural gas is Mexico’s largest source of electricity generation, accounting for 54% of the country’s generation in 2015, up from 34% in 2005.”
What’s more, 60% of Mexico’s new electricity infrastructure projects through 2029 will be powered by natural gas-fired plants, resulting in the country’s overall natural gas demand rising from 3.6 Bcf/d in 2015 to 5.4 Bcf/d in 2029.
Much of this demand will be — and already has been — fulfilled by natural gas imported from the U. S. In 2010, the U.S. only exported 0.91 Bcf/d to its southern neighbor; by 2017, this figure had risen to an all-time high of 4 Bcf/d.
This prosperous transborder natural gas trade will only be augmented by the ongoing expansion of U. S.-Mexico pipeline infrastructure. The EIA predicts that cross-border pipeline capacity will double between 2017 and 2019.
Last year alone, four new pipelines — collectively accounting for 3.5 Bcf/d of capacity — started delivering natural gas to the states of Chihuahua, Nuevo Leon, Sonora, and Sinaloa. This year, two more pipelines are slated to start delivering an additional 3.3 Bcf/d of natural gas across the border.
Years of Industry Experience
This boom in U.S. natural gas production and export has the potential to result in tremendous economic benefits for the country as a whole, but only if the major industry players are able to scale up their operations in a safe, reliable manner.
At Mattei, we’ve spent years working with companies in the natural gas sector, giving us a thorough understanding of the complexities entailed by producing and transporting natural gas. Indeed, our rotary vane compressors are often the most reliable method for achieving the natural gas compression required for a variety of demanding and potentially hazardous tasks.
Our compressors are the product of our strong commitment to engineering excellence, and are as reliable as they are cost-effective, which is why natural gas companies all across the country have relied on them for years. We hope to continue supplying them as natural gas in the United States continues to thrive.