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Should US export natural gas? DOE study fans the flames of debate.

Mark ClaytonThe Christian Science Monitor
Stephen Nowers illustration

One of the key energy battles of the next decade is emerging now: what to do with the new natural gas geyser now whooshing onto the domestic US energy market. Keep it at home, or export a big part overseas?

It's hardly an academic question. Companies are lining up for federal permits to build at least nine liquefied natural gas (LNG) facilities that would allow that US energy resource to be shipped overseas. Opposing them are environmentalists, members of Congress, and some industry groups worried it will mean higher energy costs for US consumers and manufacturers and potentially the loss of some jobs.

Debate over the issue popped up briefly in Congress this year, but was swamped by a deluge of other election issues. Even though energy policy was a centerpiece of both presidential campaigns, neither Mitt Romney nor President Obama ever unpacked for the public the potentially explosive LNG export issue.

Is it wise to sell the US gas surplus abroad if it ends up hiking energy prices at home? Which sectors of the economy would be winners – or losers? What would be the impact on domestic energy prices and the economy overall?

Answers to those questions are now emerging. According to a much-anticipated new study commissioned by the US Department of Energy and released late Wednesday, the US would get a net overall positive economic boost from exporting a big fraction of its domestic natural gas resources to Asia and other energy-hungry global markets. But that’s only if global market conditions make such exports feasible, which is not currently the case, according to the study.

The study for the DOE, by the NERA Economic Consulting of Washington, said the US economy would benefit under all future scenarios in which exports are envisioned. The Energy Department says, meanwhile, it will evaluate the study along with other information.

"Across all these scenarios, the U.S. was projected to gain net economic benefits from allowing LNG exports. Moreover, for every one of the market scenarios examined, net economic benefits increased as the level of LNG exports increased,” the study found. “In particular, scenarios with unlimited exports always had higher net economic benefits than corresponding cases with limited exports."

But while the study projects $47 billion in increased economic activity by 2020, it also goes on to detail that this largesse will not be doled out equally, saying there would be "winners and losers."

"Different socioeconomic groups depend on different sources of income, though through retirement savings an increasingly large number of workers share in the benefits of higher income to natural resource companies whose shares they own," the study found. "Nevertheless, impacts will not be positive for all groups in the economy. Households with income solely from wages or government transfers, in particular, might not participate in these benefits."

Even so, overall "net benefits" from such exports to the economy overcame “the losses from reduced capital and wage income to US consumers," it found. "LNG exports have net economic benefits in spite of higher domestic natural gas prices,” the firm concluded.

There are limits, however. For instance, according to the study's conclusions:

• Under current economic conditions, there is not enough supply in the US, or demand overseas, to make LNG exports a reality. Of course, that's projected to change as demand increase overseas and shale-gas production costs in the US fall further. Still, the study said, "under status quo conditions in the world and the US ... there is no feasible level of exports possible from the US.”

• US natural gas prices would not suddenly rise to the level of world prices, as some analysts fear, the study says. Instead, "US exports will drive prices down in regions where US supplies are competitive."

• Overall consumer wellbeing in the US improves under all LNG export scenarios. Welfare improvement is highest under the high export volume scenarios because US consumers benefit from an increase in wealth transfer and export revenues."

Among the winners, the study says, would be natural gas producers, who would see broadly positive income gains. But losers would include those US manufacturers with big energy expenditures and big exposure to foreign competition. Companies with those characteristics employ about one-half of one percent of US workers, including in the chemical, fertilizer, cement, paper, glass, and other industries.

Kevin Book, energy analyst with ClearView Energy Partners, an energy market research firm, writes that for users of natural gas, the “largest price increases that would be observed after [five] more years of potentially growing exportswould be somewhere between 22 cents and $1.11 per thousand cubic feet of gas, according to the study. That's good news for “owners of natural gas resources” and investors in those gas producers, Mr. Book writes, but negative for households that depend on government assistance and households without investments.

“Perhaps unreassuringly, the study states that ‘wage income never falls short of baseline levels by more than 1 percent in any year or any industry in any scenario.’ Opponents might read this as: “In some scenarios, LNG exports reduce wages by 1 percent,” Book notes in his analysis.

For energy-intensive manufacturing companies, the study projects maximum output losses of between 0.2 percent and 0.8 percent. There is a downside for the energy sector, too, where natural gas is becoming more and more important for generating electricity.

Such impacts are not likely to be taken lightly, and the political fight over whether to export natural gas promises to ignite next year. Officials at DOE were keeping the study at arms length, noting that the agency “does not take a position regarding these findings at this time.”

Others, however, were not so reserved. Shipping LNG overseas could increase US consumer prices for natural gas 36 percent to 54 percent by 2018, said the Industrial Energy Consumers of America in a statement. Natural gas exports would also increase electricity costs from 2 to 9 percent, the group said.

“By anyone’s measure, these are substantial cost increases”, said Paul Cicio, President of the IECA said in a statement.

Some in Congress applauded the report.

“The administration should be commended for commissioning such a comprehensive and transparent review of the potential impacts of exporting natural gas,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) of Alaska said in a statement. “It’s clear from the study that exporting LNG would be beneficial to the U.S. economy, and the greater the level of exports, the greater the benefit.”

But among others in Congress, the knives were already drawn for the study's conclusions, with opponents of LNG exports saying the higher natural gas prices would cost the nation jobs while enriching the oil and gas industry, despite the study's overall positive assessment.

“Forecasts and scenarios are worthwhile, but the department has an obligation to consider the impacts of each of the actual applications before it," said Sen. Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon in a statement.

An LNG export skeptic, Senator Wyden is in a position to do something about it as the expected new chair of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee. "It is critical that exports do not squeeze out or price out the billions of dollars of new, natural gas-related investments that have been proposed in the U.S. chemical, industrial and electric generation sectors.”

Others like Rep. Ed Markey (D) of Massachusetts are adamant. He cites a House Natural Resource Committee minority report that from 2000 to 2008, natural gas prices that rose more than 400 percent were "a major contributor to the U.S. manufacturing sector losing 3.7 million jobs."

The new NERA study takes an opposing view: "LNG exports are not likely to affect the overall level of employment in the U.S. There will be some shifts in the number of workers across industries, with those industries associated with natural gas production and exports attracting workers away from other industries.

"Higher natural gas prices in 2015 can also be expected to have negative effects on output and employment," the report continues, "particularly in sectors that make intensive use of natural gas, while other sectors not so affected could experience gains. There would clearly be greater activity and employment in natural gas production and transportation and in construction of liquefaction facilities."

Chemical, steel, and fertilizer industries are likely to feel the pinch. As the largest industrial consumer of natural gas in the United States, the fertilizer industry uses 60 percent of all the US industrial-use natural gas. From 2000 to 2006, the House report said, that industry saw more than a third of US fertilizer production capacity shut down.

Other impacts will be felt in the electric utility sector. Right now gas is cheap and the industry is shifting to burning natural gas to produce electricity. That, along with increased use by buses and heavy trucks is also expected to drive up US natural gas use by 18 percent by 2035 under current policies, “causing coal demand to drop by around 9 percent and oil demand by around 6 percent,” the International Energy Agency reports.

But any price increase on natural gas could cut short the utility industry shift, Mr. Markey wrote in a letter to Energy Secretary Steven Chu in January.

"If exporting [LNG] means accelerated development, then we will more rapidly deplete natural gas resources that could help sustain future generations of Americans, leading to higher prices as resources diminish," he wrote.