Sunday, March 09, 2014

Ukraine, Russia and the nonexistent U.S. oil and natural gas "weapon"

Commentators were falling all over themselves last week to announce that far from being impotent in the Ukraine crisis, the United States had a very important weapon: growing oil and natural gas production which could compete on the world market and challenge Russian dominance over Ukrainian and European energy supplies--if only the U.S. government would change the laws and allow this bounty to be exported.

But, there's one very big problem with this view. The United States is still a net importer of both oil and natural gas. The economics of natural gas exports beyond Mexico and Canada--which are both integrated into a North American pipeline system--suggest that such exports will be very limited if they ever come at all. And, there is no reasonable prospect that the United States will ever become a net exporter of oil.

U.S. net imports of crude oil and petroleum products are approximately 6.4 million barrels per day (mbpd). (This estimate sits between the official U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) numbers of 5.5 mbpd of net petroleum liquids imports and 7.5 mbpd of net crude oil imports. And so, to understand my calculations, please see two comments I made in a previous piece here and here. My number is for December 2013, the latest month for which the complete statistics needed to make my more accurate calculation are available.)

The EIA in its own forecast predicts that U.S. crude oil production (defined as crude including lease condensate) will experience a tertiary peak in 2016 around 9.5 mbpd just below the all-time 1970 peak and then decline starting in 2020. This level is far below 2013 U.S. consumption of about 13.2 mbpd of actual petroleum-derived liquid fuels. (This number excludes natural gas-derived liquids which can only be substituted for petroleum-derived liquids on a very limited basis.)

So, when exactly is the United States going to drown the world market in oil and thereby challenge the Russian oil export machine? The most plausible answer is never. And, the expected 2016 peak in U.S. production is only about 1.5 mbpd higher than production today. That's really quite small compared to worldwide oil production of about 76 mbpd. And, there's no guarantee that the rest of the world isn't going to see a decline in oil production between now and then. So much for the supposed U.S. oil "weapon" taming the Russian bear.

But what about natural gas? Surely, America's great bounty of natural gas from shale could challenge the Russians. Well, not really. It's true that U.S. natural gas production trended up significantly from its post-Katrina nadir in 2005. But the trend has now stalled. U.S. dry natural gas production has been almost flat since January 2012. The EIA reports total production of 24.06 trillion cubic feet (tcf) for 2012 and 24.28 tcf for 2013, a rise of only 0.9 percent year over year.

Not mentioned by any of the commentators touting the U.S. natural gas "weapon" is that U.S. natural gas imports for 2013 were about 2.88 tcf or about 11 percent of U.S. consumption. So, let me see if I understand this: The plan seems to be to import more so we can export more. And this would change exactly what in the worldwide supply picture?

Certainly, it is true that low U.S. natural gas prices have reduced drilling and exploration dramatically. But prices will likely have to rise above $6 and trend higher as time passes as the easy-to-get shale gas is used up and only the more costly and difficult reservoirs remain. Drillers don't keep drilling unless they can make money and that will require significantly higher prices.

And, here's the kicker. In order to ship U.S. natural gas to Europe or Asia, it has to be liquefied at -260 degrees F, shipped on special tankers and then regasified. The cost of doing this is about $6 per thousand cubic feet (mcf). So, the total cost of delivering $6 U.S. natural gas to Europe is around $12 per mcf. With European liquefied natural gas (LNG) prices mostly below this level for the last five years, it's hard to see Europe as a logical market. Japan would be a better target for such exports with prices moving between $15 and $18 per mcf in the last five years. But a U.S. entry into the LNG market could conceivably depress world prices and make even Japan a doubtful destination for U.S. LNG. And, what if U.S. prices rise significantly above $6?

But all this presupposes that the United States will have excess natural gas to export. As my colleague Jeffrey Brown has pointed out, "Citi Research [an arm of Citigroup] puts the decline rate for existing U.S. natural gas production at about 24%/year, which would require the industry to replace about 100% of current U.S. natural gas production in four years, just to maintain current production."

It seems that U.S. drillers are going to be very, very busy just keeping domestic natural gas production from dipping, let alone expanding it to allow exports. And remember, we are still importing the stuff today!

How many companies will actually risk the billions needed to build U.S. natural gas export terminals to liquefy and load exports that may never appear? I doubt that very many will actually go through with their plans.

What is truly puzzling is that all the information I've just adduced--except the cost of liquefying, transporting and regasifying natural gas--is available with a few clicks of a mouse and a little arithmetic performed on tables of data. I got the cost information on LNG from a money manager specializing in energy investments. And yet, commentators, reporters, and editorial writers don't even bother to check the internet or call their sources in the investment business.

Perhaps the facts have become irrelevant. Only that would explain the current hoopla over the nonexistent U.S. oil and natural gas "weapon" in the face of the all-too-obvious and readily available evidence.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at


Anonymous said...

Sure sure no gas for Europe. Just authorize those export LNG terminals waiting for authorization already, and let the market figure it out.

yvesT said...

To me there is a major "common image" in the western psyche, that although in a very indirect way in this case, still plays a major part in what kind of propaganda can be pushed regarding current and recent conflicts.

It could be summarized as :
"first oil shock = Yom Kippur/Arab embargo= geopolitical story= nothing to do with geologic constraints"

When the real story was :

- end 1970 : US production peak, the energy crisis starts from there, with some heating fuel shortages for instance (some articles can be found on NYT archive on that)
- Nixon name James Akins to go check what is going on.
- Akins goes around all US producers, saying this won't be communicated to the media, but needs to be known, national security question
- The results are bad : no additional capacity at all, production will only go down, the results are also presentede to the OECD
- The reserves of Alaska, North Sea, Gulf of Mexico, are known at that time, but to be developed the barrel price needs to be higher
- In parallel this is also the period of "rebalance" between oil majors and countries on each barrel revenus (Ghadaffi being the first to push 55/50 for instance), and creation of national oil companies.
- dropping of B Woods in 71 (move to petro $) and associated $ devaluation also put pressure on raising the barrel price for producing countries.
- So to be able to start Alaska, GOM, North Sea, and have some "outside OPEC" market share, the barrel price needs to go up (always good for oil majors anyway) and this is also US diplomacy strategy
- For instance Akins, then US ambassador in Saudi Arabia, is the one talking about $4 or $5 a barrel in an OAPEC meeting in Algiers in 1972 (when it still was around $1)
- Yom Kippur starts during an OPEC meeting in Vienna, which was about barrel revenus percentages, and barrel price rise.
- The declaration of the embargo pushes the barrel up on the spots markets (that just have been set up)
- But the embargo remains quite limited (not from Iran, not from Iraq, only towards a few countries)
- It remains fictive from Saudi Arabia towards the US : tankers kept on going from KSA, through Barhain to make it more discrete, towards the US Army in Vietnam in particular.
- Akins is very clear about that in below documentary interviews (which unfortunately only exists in French and German to my knowledge, and interviews are voiced over) :
For instance after 24:10, where he says that two senators were starting having rather "strong voices" about "doing something", he asked the permission to tell them what was going on, got it, told them, they shat up and there was never any leak. The first oil schock "episode" starts at 18:00
(the "embargo story" was in fact very "pratical", both for the US to "cover up" US peak towards US public opinion or western one in general, but also for major Arab producers to show "the arab street" that they were doing something for the Palestinians).

Note : About Akins, see for instance :

And then the second oil shock (79) result of Iranian revolution, and leading to the "Carter doctrine", with then the Reagan corollary and creation of CENTCOM.

Followed by the counter oil shock (for a big part the result of Reagan administration pushing the Saudis to produce more in order to bring the USSR down), about this for instance :

The global ignorance about all this allows to keep the messages around "old time geopolitics, this is about values, pushing democracy, bad and good guys, etc".

yvesT said...

By the way about Akins, his report to Nixon in 1971 should be a key document, but it is still classified to my knowledge, anybody knows whether it could now be declassified ?

Anonymous said...

Someone may want to make Rep. Peter King aware of this article. He thinks we can just up and ship to Europe any realized deficit in NG by a Russian embargo. He didn't really sound like he believed his own BS but that is what he said.