Natural Gas' Silver Lining...For Some
Managing Editor, CNBC.com
The latest earnings season had its fair share of short revenues, dimmed outlooks, and layoff announcements. But for a few companies and industry segments, there is a silver lining: energy costs are staying in line, thanks to the natural gas glut.
"One of the reasons we did better than most people thought in the quarter was despite a slowing economy, I have a feedstock advantage here in the United States for the first time if a long time," said Andrew Liveris, CEO of Dow Chemical, in discussing his company's results on CNBC's "Squawk Box" Wednesday.
The natural gas advantage helps on two levels. Chemical companies, plastic makers, and fertilizer outfits use natural gas to make key ingredients for their products. Other companies, like metal workers and utilities, can use natural gas to produce energy for their operations or power customers.
In both cases, the lower natural gas prices brought about by greater use of fracking technology has been a benefit. That same technology has also benefited oil users, since fracking technology has also upped oil production.
(Read More: What Is Fracking?)
"Our natural gas consumption has gone up 150 percent for this year versus last year so that's the kind of renaissance that's occurring in the energy industry that we haven't seen before," American Electric Power CEO Nick Akins said on CNBC's "Mad Money".
Indeed the drop in natural prices—roughly $12 per million BTUs in 2008 versus roughly $4 now—has some executives believing the situation will benefit not just particular companies and industries, but the economy as a whole.
"It's going to be transformative for our economy, absolutely," said Loew's CEO James Tisch during a CNBC appearance earlier in the month. "…We produce 65 billion cubic feet of natural gas a day… at the same price, we could produce 85 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day. For every additional billion cubic feet we produce, my calculation is that creates an additional 7,000 to 10,000 jobs."
Of course low gas prices aren't helping everyone. Natural gas suppliers like Noble Energy, ConocoPhillips, and Occidental all reported hits to their balance sheets because of low prices. And those prices also have some manufacturers moving from coal to natural gas for their energy supply. Railroads, which rely on coal for a major part of their business, are also feeling negative effects.
Discussing his company's earnings on CNBC Mike Ward, CEO of CSX, said his company expected to see coal traffic drop as older electricity plants closed down, but "I think that's been accelerated by the low natural gas prices we're seeing."
And some think the low prices won't last. In fact, natural gas has experienced a slight uptick. And others think more competitive advantage can be found elsewhere.
"Somebody told me natural gas is a game changer," said noted economist Marc Faber, also appearing on "Squawk Box." "That's why the U.S. market has outperformed any other market... The view is this: You invest in America. America is less bad than Europe and Asia…. Now, one of the reasons is they say the U.S. will become energy self-sufficient in five or seven years and natural gas will lead to a competitive advantage for the U.S. [But] yesterday I arrived at Kennedy (Airport)… I waited two and a half hours in front of immigration to get through. You think that (cheap) gas will change any of that? This is ridiculous. The problem is we have not only in the U.S. but also in Europe bureaucracies that are far too big. My medicine is reduce government a minimum of 50 percent."
—Companies mentioned in this post include Dow Chemcial , American Electric Power , CSX Corp. , and Loew's .