August 10, 2012
A commentary by Michael Vickerman, RENEW Wisconsin
Wholesale natural gas prices are once again flirting with the $3.00/MMBtu mark after the Energy Information Agency (EIA) reported this week that working gas in storage increased by 24 billion cubic feet (bcf) over last week’s totals. Compared with the five-year average of 45 bcf for the first week in August, the volume injected is modest. The August 9th report marks the 15th week in a row where the weekly injection volumes trailed the five-year average by a minimum of 20 bcf.
On the trading front, the trend this summer has been a steady upward drift punctuated by sharp sell-offs whenever gas prices momentarily settle above $3.00. The last week in July was a case in point. Though the reported number for that week (28 bcf) was only half the five-year average for that date, the announcement triggered a pullback of nearly 10% down to $2.80 from $3.10. It turns out that EIA’s number came in 5 bcf higher than the traders’ own estimate, triggering a wave of serious unloading of positions by those who had bet long.
Everyone in the energy industry, including the traders themselves, knows that $3.00/MMBtu is well below the cost of producing natural gas, and cannot support exploration and extraction activity at the level we saw in 2008 through 2010. Producing shale gas, the so-called “game-changer” that industry flacks contended would loosen King Coal’s grip on the electricity sector, is an even more expensive proposition. High-profile exploration and production (E&P) companies like Chesapeake Energy tried to maintain a jaunty look while wholesale prices were scraping along the $2.00 floor, but they can no longer conceal their distress. Consider the following developments that occurred over the last fortnight.
- Chesapeake Energy announced plans to reduce domestic gas production in 2013 by 8%;
- BHP Billiton wrote down $2.84 billion on the value of Fayetteville shale gas assets it had acquired in 2011; and
- The most recent count of rigs drilling for natural gas in the United States is 498, nearly 70% off the levels seen in September 2008, when prices were above $10/MMBtu.
“Write down” is a fairly bloodless way to describe the loss of $3 billion; “carnage” is better at conveying the pain that now grips the natural gas sector. This begs the question: why do wholesale natural gas prices appear to be trapped for now at the $3.00/MMBtu level?
I believe that there are two reasons for this phenomenon. The first is that energy traders, like virtually everyone else in this country, are truly convinced that the U.S. is awash in shale gas. The industry-led campaign to persuade Congress, state legislatures, Wall Street, Big Media, utilities, and Joe Sixpack that the United States possesses a 100-year supply of natural gas has been a stunning success. Federal energy agencies like EIA have also bought into this view of the supply picture big-time, leaving little room for skeptics and agnostics to influence public perceptions.
This overaching belief has been unintentionally reinforced by local and regional controversies over the practice of hydraulic fracturing solid rock to obtain the shale gas trapped inside. Virtually unheard of four years ago, “fracking” has vaulted into the public consciousness, and in doing so, sustains the society-wide belief that natural gas can be accessed almost anywhere in the United States.
Ironically, the myth of abundance that E&P companies so carefully cultivated (and bankrolled) is now clearly working against their short-term interests.
The other factor that keeps prices so low is the traders’ fear of large demand swings. This is a more legitimate if somewhat overblown fear. The two main reference points for traders here is the demand destruction that occurred in 2008 from the one-two punch of double-digit gas prices and worldwide recession, and the abnormal bulge in storage volumes that occurred earlier this year.
As late as September 2011, natural gas inventories were tracking closely with the five-year average for storage volumes. Then came the phantom winter of 2011-2012, which brought us the usual dose of darkness but not the snowstorms and frigid air masses that make life in the Upper Midwest distinctly unpicniclike until April. In addition to disrupting seasonal cycles and ruining the maple syrup harvest, the extended stretches of anomalous warmth cut demand for heating fuel between 25% to 30%. Withdrawals of natural gas were substantially lower than the five-year averages during the heating season, creating a colossal bulge that briefly sent wholesale prices skidding below $2.00/MMBtu. By late April, the difference between 2012 storage volumes and the five-year average stood at 931bcf, about 60% larger than normal.
On May 1st, the pendulum started swinging the other way, whittling down the supply overhang to a more manageable 377 bcf compared with the five-year average for this week. Assuming present trends continue in future weekly storage reports, inventories should be in line with the five-year average by mid-December.
Traders attribute the ongoing reduction in inventories to a hotter than normal summer, prompting utilities to switch on more gas generators to meet system peaks. But weather isn’t the only thing that influences the storage picture; output does as well. But as long as traders and speculators subscribe to the myth of nearly limitless supply, they will discount the possibility that declining output is also responsible for lagging storage volumes. It is this mindset, coupled with the fear of weather-driven demand swings, that compels traders to focus on the supply overhang that remains, rather than gain a fuller appreciation of why it has shrunk so dramatically in only 15 weeks.
Old paradigms die hard. But in the not-very-distant future, the reality of reduced drilling activity and capital spending, along with rapid decline rates in shale gas plays, will bite deeply into the supply of natural gas and cause yet another overturning of expectations in this sector. Given the damage being inflicted on E&P companies as well as their renewable energy competitors, the intrusion of reality into this picture can’t happen soon enough.
Sources: Master Resource Report, Ravenna Capital Management http://www.ravennacapitalmanagement.com/mrr/
“Chesapeake to cut natural gas production,” NEWSOK, Adam Wilmoth, August 8, 2012. http://newsok.com/chesapeake-to-cut-natural-gas-production/article/3699062
“Billiton in $3.3 billion write-down as gas prices plunge,” BBC News. August 3, 2012. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-19107135
Michael Vickerman is program and policy director of RENEW Wisconsin, a sustainable energy advocacy organization. For more information on the global and national petroleum and natural gas supply picture, visit “The End of Cheap Oil” section in RENEW Wisconsin’s web site: www.renewwisconsin.org. These commentaries also posted on RENEW’s blog: http://renewwisconsinblog.org and Madison Peak Oil Group’s blog: http://www.madisonpeakoil-blog.blogspot.com