A longstanding assumption of American energy policy has been that natural gas would be plentiful abroad, and therefore readily available for importation, as production falls off in North America, where many fields are tapped out.
But some experts are starting to question that idea, saying natural gas could be subject to the same explosion in overseas demand that has made oil so expensive.
As it is, the supertankers that were supposed to deliver cargoes of gas from Africa and the Middle East to the United States are taking them to places like Spain and Japan instead, pushing up gas prices and depleting the nation’s stockpiles as the hurricane season approaches.
“A few years ago people looked at L.N.G. as a solution to North America’s gas needs,” said Nikos Tsafos, an analyst with PCF Energy, a consulting firm. “But today we see that there is less L.N.G. around than people expected, and there is more competition for that L.N.G. from markets that are willing to pay more than the United States.”
Not long ago, Cheniere was a darling of Wall Street. It was widely praised for having the vision to plan four new liquefied gas terminals around the Gulf of Mexico to connect the country with supplies of natural gas from places like Nigeria and Egypt, gas once considered so worthless it was burned off.
Now the company’s stock price has sunk from $40 to just over $5 since last fall.
“The question that people ask is if L.N.G. doesn’t come to the United States for another year or two or three, what is going to happen to Cheniere,” acknowledged Charif Souki, the chief executive officer of the company.
While natural gas prices in the United States have spiked to over $11.80 per thousand cubic feet from $7.50 at the beginning of the year, the price that gas producers can draw in many other countries in the world is several dollars higher. All they need are terminals in producing countries that can chill natural gas to minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit for shipping across oceans and terminals in consuming countries that can regasify cargoes.
Just about the only place where demand for L.N.G. seems not to be growing is the United States, an abrupt shift from expectations as little as one year ago.
The Sabine Pass terminal was part of an estimated $7 billion construction of eight new L.N.G. receiving terminals being built around the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Coast over the last five years to guarantee plentiful domestic supplies. With imports about 40 percent of the level of a year ago, and national receiving terminal capacity poised to double this year, the excess construction of import capacity has alarmed industry executives.
However the executives predict that it is only a matter of time before the white elephants begin to look like a more robust breed. They say American gas suppliers will eventually be willing to pay the higher world prices on the spot market, especially if a gas shortage ensues after a punishing hurricane season or frigid winter.
They also predict future American consumption of natural gas is poised to increase because of hardening opposition to building new coal-fired electricity generating plants and delays in new nuclear plants. “Over time, we will need to start importing more gas,” said Darcel L. Hulse, president of Sempra LNG, a division of Sempra Energy, which is building receiving terminals in Mexico and Louisiana. “We will not have enough.”
That was the thinking that spurred the L.N.G. expansion in the United States in the first place. At the beginning of the decade, government officials and energy experts predicted a decline in domestic natural gas production as conventional fields on-shore and in the Gulf of Mexico declined. Companies like Cheniere, Sempra Energy and Exxon Mobil began snapping up coastal land and requesting regulatory approval for scores of terminals. Several other terminals were taken out of mothballs and expanded.
But recently domestic natural gas production has been stronger than expected and events abroad have drawn L.N.G. from the United States to countries that needed it more.
Last July an earthquake in Japan forced the closing of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant, which in turn has forced Japanese utilities to import huge amounts of L.N.G.
World L.N.G. supplies grew even more scarce because of a persistent drought in Spain that has crimped that country’s hydroelectric capacity, forcing the Spanish to increase L.N.G. imports.
Prices in Asia and Europe have soared, as producers have sold more supply on the spot market where prices are higher than those in traditional long term contracts.
World demand for natural gas has grown about 2.6 percent a year over the last decade, but in Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and Africa it has averaged 7 percent over the same period, according to a recent UBS report. Growth in the developing world is expected to be supported in the years ahead by a construction boom in refineries and power and petrochemical plants.