Gas the price of Freedom

The US government in its efforts to promote liquefied natural gas exports has taken to referring to the product as ‘Freedom Gas’
““Increasing export capacity from the Freeport LNG project is critical to spreading freedom gas throughout the world by giving America’s allies a diverse and affordable source of clean energy.””
A name change slightly more idiotic than the change from French fries when France was insufficiently gung-ho about the Iraq war.

Another government official in the Energy department has referred to exporting methane as providing “molecules of freedom”. This in support of an attempt to portray the export of the natural gas that the US has in an over-supply, as a blow against the natural gas its allies in Europe and the far East are buying from Russia. It is claimed that dependence on Russian gas would leave those Nations open to political blackmail from Russia if it threatened to break commercial contracts and cut off the supply of gas. Apparently it would never even be considered that the US would exploit its contracted supply in such a way by applying tariffs or charges for ‘reasons of National Security !

It is difficult for US liquefied natural gas to compete on price in the European spot market with Russian gas because the cost of processing and shipping puts it above the spot price on the European and other over-seas markets against the direct pipeline supply from Russia. This despite the apparent very low cost of US natural gas within America. However the factors that make US gas cheap also apply to Russian gas.

Both Russia and America have vastly expanded their extraction of oil over the last  two decades. Russia in an attempt to revitalise a moribund economy. The US as a response to the dominance of OPEC in setting oil prices which might undermine the reliance the US economy has on very cheap liquid fossil fuels. Natural gas production has been a secondary product of this expansion of oil extraction.

The result has been an over-supply of natural gas which has driven down the price to well below the actual cost of extraction. In Texas at various times the producers at various times have been paying distribution, storage, and processing businesses to take the gas while much has been flared off, burnt, at the well heads. This because the pipeline, railroad and storage infrastructure is incapable of dealing with the quantity of natural gas produced as a by-product of the oil drilling, and demand has fallen for the natural gas produced.

The reduction in demand has two reasons, both a consequence of climate change. the warming climate has reduced the demand for gas as a means of domestic and commercial heating. Meanwhile the transition from electricity generation from coal to cheaper cleaner gas plants might have been expected to increase demand, but that has been limited by the expansion of wind and solar electrical generation which has competed on price with gas and relegated it increasingly to an intermittent supplier to fill the gaps when such renewable sources are unavailable to provide base-load power.

The actual cost of Freedom Gas is difficult to determine, it is dependent on multiple factors such as:-

  • The ultimate gas recovery from a well (EUR)
  • The sunk costs drilling a well
  • The land costs
  • The cost of pipelines, process facilities and transport to market
  • Tax and royalties
  • Interest paid and interest rates
  • Corporate overhead
  • competition from falling costs of renewable generation

In Texas the negative cost of gas that has made it cheaper to burn it at the well-head has been offset by the cost per barrel of oil extraction from the wells in production is lower than the current cost of a barrel of oil on the global market. However in other areas of the US where fracking is being used to extract oil the  break-even cost of oil extraction can be close to the current oil price. If the price of oil falls much below $60/barrel many fracked well may be unprofitable without the sale of the natural gas at present, or higher, prices for the gas. But higher natural gas prices would suppress demand as it would become noncompetitive with alternative energy sources. But if the oil price rises much above $70/barrel it may impact the global economy suppressing demand and making alternative energy sources more attractive as replacements for liquid fossil fuel. Even if the global economic system can adapt to higher oil prices without falling into a recession, the over-supply of ‘cheap’ gas will still tend to make it a stranded asset.

While all of this economic and logistical complexity bedevils Freedom Gas there is another factor that impacts the issue that cannot, or at least should not, be ignored. Although as the name suggests the present US administration is striving to do so. The increased use of cheap natural gas in the US over the last decade has increased the CO2 emissions of the nation. This may have been one of the motives for the exit from the Paris climate agreement. The wish to exploit the abundant methane available as a byproduct of the oil drilling expansion by the fossil fuel industry would have resulted in lobbying of the government to reject the emission reduction agreement.

But the month of extreme weather in May 2019 should be a salutary warning of the dangers of such economic pragmatism. It will take more than Happers’ Red Team to dismiss the obvious role of climate change in super-charging the floods, tornadoes, and storms that have swept across the nation. Scientists have warned that the role of climate change in these events is undeniable, if not as a cause then as a compounding factor. And that it is merely a taste of what is to come if emissions of CO2 from fossil fuels are not virtually eliminated on a short timescale.

What price Freedom Gas ?


2 responses to “Gas the price of Freedom

  1. Other nations export liquid natural gas. Why can’t America, especially when the price of gas is close to zero?

    Russia has reliably exported natural gas at the high of the cold war. A pipeline is a large part of the costs and creates a mutual dependency. We naturally have a buffer. If Europe would not buy Russian gas and other countries would no longer trust Russia to be reliable, their economy would tank.

    America has a history of toppling governments that do not submit to their military empire using economic blockades. Molecules for Militarism. I like alliterations.


  2. The actual cost of extraction of natural gas is difficult to determine.
    Especially when it is a secondary product of oil extraction. The profit from the oil subsidises the ‘cost’ of the gas.
    Without a pipeline and storage facilities that can accept the quantities involved it has to be flared off on site. This is part of the problem oil wells in Texas have and which leads to negative gas prices.

    The cost of transport, storage, processing and liquefaction, along with the shipping costs and a suitable terminal and storage at the destination set the price of gas even if it is effectively negative at the well head. The desire of US producers to avoid selling at a loss is also the reason they want long term contracts for their LNG supply at prices above the lower margin of market spot prices.

    As you correctly observe, the existence of a pipeline makes the delivery costs much cheaper. Reluctance to abandon sunk capital means that even if the usage charges do not pay off the initial investment, if they cover the operating and maintenance costs there is a strong motivation to continue to use it.

    But there is good reason to want to avoid any further gas delivery infrastructure and abandon existing delivery systems. The estimated reserves already developed will already exceed the cumulative emissions predicted to drive temperatures over 1.5 C if used.

    Gas breaks the Carbon budget.


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