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Why Shell Is Making a Big Bet on Natural Gas

With natural gas trading near a one-year high, Royal Dutch Shell, one of the world's largest integrated oil and gas companies, is making a big bet on the future of the cleanest of all fossil fuels.

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In an exclusive interview on CNBC's "Squawk Box," Shell CEO Peter Voser said his company plans to invest $20 billion in natural gas products globally over the next three years. (Read More: Can the Natural Gas Sector Save the US Economy?)

"We are pursuing four options here in the U.S. to do something with the natural gas," Voser said. "First, is to go into chemicals which then can be used for manufacturing industries. Second, using gas to go into liquids, generating synthetic diesel, base oils. Third, gas into transports for trucks and shipping industries. And finally, LNG (liquefied natural gas) exports out of the U.S."

For Shell, which began its investment in natural gas in 2005 when oil was a mere $40 a barrel and natural gas skyrocketed to $13, the advantages of gas are very clear.

Natural gas futures rallied to the highest level of the year for a front-month contract before slipping slightly Thursday after the U.S. Energy Department reported the first winter heating season gas storage withdrawals. Forecasts for much colder temperatures across the East over the next week helped spur a three-day rally this week.

December natural gas futures rose to $3.83 per million BTUs Thursday morning, a more than 90 percent gain from the decade low sub-$2 prices this spring.

The conversion from natural gas into motor fuel, known as gas-to-liquid (GTL) conversion, is key in unlocking the benefits of natural gas and crucial to opening the door to future energy independence, Voser said.

More importantly, Shell has already patented this type of technology in Qatar, home to the largest gas-to-liquids plant in the world. Voser said Shell's proprietary GTL plant and technology will eventually be brought to the U.S. Shell is currently looking into locations for a GTL plant along the Gulf Coast, Voser said. (Read More: The Math Behind the 100-Year, Natural-Gas Supply Debate.)

In one of the industry's boldest forecasts, the International Energy Agency (IEA) earlier this week said it expects the U.S. to become the world's largest oil and natural gas producer before 2020. The agency also forecast U.S. will be all but self-sufficient in its energy needs by 2035. Voser said his company's projections mirror the IEA's forecast very closely, but the right conditions are still needed for energy independence.

Natural gas can play a crucial role in gaining freedom from foreign oil. A very affordable and abundant domestic resource, the accumulation of natural gas supply has naturally depressed prices along the way, enough for many to deem the resource as an investment that lacks lucrative returns.

Though ample U.S. oil and gas supply exists, Voser stresses the need for U.S. energy policy that incentivizes companies like Shell to invest in technology and infrastructure to bring new supply to market. While he admitted the industry itself doesn't generate a lot of jobs, the products which they produce — such as chemicals — can be used to re-industrialize the U.S.

—By CNBC's Sharon Epperson and Judy Gee

Follow Sharon on Twitter: @sharon_epperson

Disclaimer

  • Patti Domm

    Patti Domm is CNBC Executive Editor, News, responsible for news coverage of the markets and economy.

  • A CNBC reporter since 1990, Bob Pisani covers Wall Street from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

  • CNBC's Senior Personal Finance Correspondent

  • JeeYeon Park is a writer for CNBC.com. Follow her on Twitter: @JeeYeonParkCNBC

  • Rick Santelli joined CNBC Business News as an on-air editor in 1999, reporting live from the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade.

  • Senior Producer at CNBC's Breaking News Desk.