Much has been made of the exponential growth in natural gas supply within the continental United States due to the horizontal drilling and fracking techniques employed in recent years. The resulting natural gas glut has reversed the conventional wisdom that America would be a net importer of natural gas for most of the 21st century with the expectation now being that America, despite being by far the world’s largest consumer of hydrocarbons, will be a significant exporter of natural gas overseas in the coming years and decades. This development has resulted in a flurry of proposed liquefied natural gas (“LNG”) terminals that hope to export natural gas in order to take advantage of the large spreads between prices in America and those in Europe and Asia. Those price spreads exist because a worldwide market for natural gas doesn’t exist, as opposed to oil where the relatively short-lived Brent-WTI price differential has evaporated in recent months.
However, these export terminals cannot export gas to foreign countries lacking a free trade agreement with the U.S. without permits from the U.S. Department of Energy and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (“FERC”). The queue for approval is long with only three facilities (including most recently the Lake Charles LNG Project in Lake Charles, Louisiana) receiving approval from the Department of Energy and only one of those (the Sabine Pass project in Cameron Parish, Louisiana) receiving approval from FERC. Given the long construction lead times for these projects and political pressure from environmentalists and buyers of natural gas who want prices to remain low, it won’t be until 2016 when any significant volumes of LNG are exported from the continental United States. Rival producers such as Qatar, Australia and Indonesia are rapidly signing contracts with Japan, Korea and China to satisfy the long-term needs of those countries as America continues to delay the development of its LNG infrastructure.
Meanwhile, the historically low natural gas prices created by the production glut are forcing energy companies to find a profitable market for their natural gas in the short to medium term. They appear to have found one in America’s backyard: Mexico. Constructing pipelines to straddle the U.S.-Mexico border entail less regulatory complexities and attract less political attention than LNG exports. With the existing U.S.-Mexico natural gas pipelines almost at capacity, energy companies cannot build border pipelines fast enough, with several new pipeline projects coming online, including Kinder Morgan’s El Paso Natural Gas Co. export pipeline near El Paso, Texas, with a capacity of 0.37 billion cubic feet per day. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration all of the in-progress pipeline projects on the U.S.-Mexico border could result in a doubling of American natural gas exports to Mexico by the end of 2014.
This new export market should continue to support U.S. shale development in the near-term and medium-term future, especially in Texas, despite low natural gas prices and continued supply growth. Longer term prospects for U.S. natural gas exports to Mexico are also bright as well. Even though Mexico has large hydrocarbon reserves itself, the 1938 nationalization of its oil industry and the subsequent decades of underinvestment have seen Mexican hydrocarbon production steadily decline in the last decade. The Mexican constitution effectively prohibits private investment in hydrocarbon production and the Mexican public firmly believes in public ownership of hydrocarbons. There is widespread agreement among many Mexican politicians that private capital, especially from U.S. energy companies with the expertise to tap offshore and shale hydrocarbons, is needed to reverse the production decline, but whether public opposition can be overcome remains in doubt. Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto is pushing constitutional reforms to attract foreign capital, but even if those pass Mexico is years away from converting any private capital into increased production. If those reforms do not pass, Mexico will be forced to continue to look to U.S. natural gas producers to provide it with its growing energy needs.
So while a regulatory bottleneck is endangering America’s ability to be a long-term overseas exporter of natural gas, Mexico, with its growing economy and inability to tap its own reserves, seems poised to play an outsized role in a continued expansion of American natural gas production. LNG exports might be the wave of the future, but natural gas exports to Mexico are the here and now.