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U.S. drillers will produce more natural gas next year than previously expected as exports rise and gas-fired plants generate more electricity, the Department of Energy reported on Tuesday.
The department's Energy Information Administration hiked its output forecast by 1.2 percent, or nearly 1 billion cubic feet per day, in its latest Short-Term Energy Outlook released on Tuesday. EIA projected that drillers would turn out 77.34 billion cubic feet a day in 2018, up from its prior estimate of 76.42 bcf per day.
That amounts to growth of 3.9 bcf per day next year.
"Forecast record natural gas production in 2018 coincides with an expected rise in electricity generation from natural-gas fired power plants and a 23% increase in U.S. natural gas exports," EIA Acting Administrator Howard Gruenspecht said in a statement.
The United States will likely become a net exporter of natural gas next year, meaning it will ship out more natural gas than it imports, according to EIA. The shift is already starting: Natural gas exports exceeded imports in three of the first five months of this year.
American shipments of dry natural gas by pipeline to Mexico have doubled since 2009, while the country is starting to import less gas from Canada.
Going forward, EIA expects export growth to be driven by liquefied natural gas, or natural as cooled to liquid form for shipment.
LNG shipments from Cheniere Energy's export terminal in Sabine Pass, Louisiana, hit a record 1.96 bcf per day in May. Another four export terminals are expected to be completed by 2021, pushing U.S. export capacity to 9.2 bcf per day.
EIA also forecast this year's output will reach 73.48 bcf per day, up from its prior estimate of 73.30 bcf per day. It raised its outlook for average prices in 2017 by 11 cents per thousand cubic feet. Last week, Morgan Stanley forecast natural gas prices would rise this winter as power plants turn to the commodity following a recent drop in prices.
Though natural gas prices remain fairly weak, the lower cost of coal has made it the go-to fuel source for power generators this year. EIA expects coal's advantage to slightly narrow next year, with coal and natural gas accounting for 32 percent and 31 percent of U.S. electricity generation, respectively, in 2018.
EIA's forecast for average U.S. oil output was roughly unchanged at 9.35 million barrels a day this year and 9.91 million barrels a day in 2018. The agency reduced its outlook for average U.S. crude prices by 7 cents, to $48.88.