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Could we be hitting natural gas limits already?

Gail Tverberg's picture
Researcher OurFiniteWorld.com

My background is as an actuary, making financial forecasts for the insurance industry. In 2015, I began investigating how the limits of a finite world might affect the financial system, oil...

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  • Oct 11, 2021
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Many countries have assumed that natural gas imports will be available for balancing electricity produced by intermittent wind and solar, whenever they are needed. The high natural gas import prices recently being encountered in Europe, and especially in the UK, appear to be an indication of an underlying problem. Could the world already be hitting natural gas limits?

One reason few people expect a problem with natural gas is because of the immense quantities reported as proven reserves. For all countries combined, these reserves at December 31, 2020 were equal to 48.8 times world natural gas production in 2020. Thus, in theory, the world could continue to produce natural gas at the current rate for almost 50 years, without even trying to find more natural gas resources.

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Ratios of natural gas reserves to production vary greatly by country, giving a hint that the indications may be unreliable. High reserves make an exporting country appear to be dependable for many years in the future, whether or not this is true.

Figure 1. Ratio of natural gas reserves at December 31, 2020, to natural gas production for the year 2020, based on trade data of BP’s 2021 Statistical Review of World Energy. Russia+ is the Commonwealth of Independent States. It includes Russia and the countries to the south of Russia that were included in the former Soviet Union.

As I see the issue, these reserves are unlikely to be produced unless world oil prices rise to a level close to double what they are today and stay at such a high level for several years. I say this because the health of the oil and gas industries are closely intertwined. Of the two, oil has historically been the major profit-maker, enabling adequate funds for reinvestment. Prices have been too low for oil producers for about eight years now, cutting back on investment in new fields and export capability. This low-price issue is what seems to be leading to limits to the natural gas supply, as well as a limit to the oil supply.

Figure 2. Inflation adjusted oil prices based on EIA monthly average Brent oil prices, adjusted by the CPI Urban. The chart shows price data through October 2020. The Brent oil price at September 24, 2021 is about $74 per barrel, which is still very low relative to what oil companies require to make adequate reinvestment.

In this post, I will try to explain some of the issues involved. In some ways, a dire situation already seems to be developing.

[1] Taking a superficial world view, natural gas seems to be doing fairly well. It is only when a person starts analyzing some of the pieces that problems start to become clear.

Figure 3. World oil, coal and natural gas supply based on data of BP’s 2021 Statistical Review of World Energy.

Figure 3 shows that natural gas supply has been rising, year after year. There was a brief dip in 2009, at the time of the Great Recession, and a slightly larger dip in 2020, related to COVID-19 restrictions. Overall, production has been growing at a steady rate. Compared to oil and coal, the recent growth pattern of natural gas has been more stable.

The quantity of exports of natural gas tends to be much more variable. Figure 4 compares inter-regional trade for coal and natural gas. Here, I have ignored local trade and only considered trade among fairly large blocks of countries, such as North America, Europe and Russia combined with its close affiliates.

Figure 4. Total inter-regional trade among fairly large groupings of countries (such as Europe and North America) based on trade data provided by BP’s 2021 Statistical Review of World Energy.

If a person looks closely at the growth of natural gas imports in Figure 4, it becomes clear that growth in natural gas is a feast or famine proposition, given to upward spurts, dips and flat periods. It is my understanding that in the early years, natural gas was typically traded under long-term contracts, on a “take or pay” basis. The price was often tied to the oil price. This generous pricing structure allowed natural gas exports to grow rapidly in the 2000 to 2008 period. The Great Recession cut back the need for natural gas imports and also led to downward pressure on the pricing of exports.

After the Great Recession, natural gas import prices tended to fall below oil prices (Figure 5) except in Japan, where stability of supply is very important. Another change was that an increasing share of exported natural gas was sold in the “spot” market. These prices fluctuate depending on changes in supply and demand, making them much more variable.

Figure 5. Comparison of annual average natural gas prices with corresponding Brent oil price, based on information from BP’s 2021 Statistical Review of World Energy. Natural gas prices per million Btus converted to barrel of oil equivalent prices by multiplying by 6.0.

Looking back at Figure 4, natural gas exports were close to flat between 2011 and 2016. Such flat exports, together with falling export prices in the 2013 to 2016 period (Figure 5), would have been a nightmare for oil and gas companies doing long-range planning for oil exports. Exports spurted upward in the 2016 to 2019 period, and then fell back in 2020 (Figure 4). All of the volatility in the growth rate of required new production, combined with uncertainty of the pricing of exports, reduced interest in planning for projects that would increase natural gas export capability.

[2] In 2021, quite a number of countries seem to be ramping up natural gas imports at the same time. This is likely one issue leading to the spiking spot prices in Europe for natural gas.

Now that the economy is recovering from the effects of COVID-19, Europe is trying to ramp up its natural gas imports, probably to a level above the import level in 2019. Figure shows that both China and Other Asia Pacific are also likely to be ramping up their imports, providing a great deal of competition for imports.

Figure 6. Areas with net natural gas imports, based on trade data of BP’s 2021 Statistical Review of World Energy. Other Asia Pacific excludes Japan, China and Australia.

It is no surprise that China’s natural gas imports are rising rapidly. With China’s rapid economic growth, it needs energy resources of whatever kinds it can obtain. Natural gas is cleaner-burning than coal. The CO2 emitted when burning natural gas is lower, as well. (These climate benefits may be partially or fully offset by methane lost in shipping natural gas as liquefied natural gas (LNG), however.)

In Figure 6, the sudden appearance and rapid rise of Other Asia Pacific imports can be explained by the fact that this figure shows the net indications for a combination of natural gas importers (including South Korea, India, and Taiwan) and exporters (including Malaysia and Indonesia). In recent years, natural gas import growth has greatly exceeded export growth. It would not be surprising if this rapid rise continues, since this part of the world is one that has been increasing its manufacturing in recent years.

If anyone had stepped back to analyze the situation in 2019, it would have been clear that, in the near future, natural gas exports would need to be rising extremely rapidly to meet the needs of all of the importers simultaneously. The dip in Europe’s natural gas imports due to COVID-19 restrictions in 2020 temporarily hid the problem. Now that Europe is trying to get back to normal, there doesn’t seem to be enough to go around.

[3] Apart from the United States, it is hard to find a part of the world where natural gas exports are rapidly rising.

Figure 7. Natural gas exports by area, based on trade data of BP’s 2021 Statistical Review of World Energy. Russia+ is the Commonwealth of Independent States. It includes Russia and the countries to the south of Russia that were included in the former Soviet Union.

Russia+ is by far the world’s largest exporter of natural gas. Even with Russia+’s immense exports, its total exports (about 10 exajoules a year, based on Figure 7) still fall short of Europe’s natural gas import needs (at least 12 exajoules a year, based on Figure 6). The dip in Russia+’s natural gas exports in 2020 no doubt reflects the fact that Europe’s imports fell in 2020 (Figure 6). Since these exports were mostly pipeline exports, there was no way that Russia+ could sell the unwanted natural gas elsewhere, lowering its total exports.

At this point, there seems to be little expectation for a major rise in natural gas exports from Russia+ because of a lack of capital to spend on such projects. Russia built the new Nord Stream 2 pipeline, but it doesn’t seem to have a huge amount of new natural gas exports to put into the pipeline. As much as anything, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline seems to be a way of bypassing Ukraine with its exports.

Figure 7 shows that the Middle East’s natural gas exports rose in the period 2000 to 2011, but they have since leveled off. A major use for Middle Eastern natural gas is to produce electricity to support the local economies. Before the Middle East ramped up its natural gas production, much of the electricity was obtained by burning oil. The sales price the Middle East can get for selling its natural gas is far below the price it can get for selling oil, especially when the high cost of shipping the natural gas is considered. Thus, it makes sense for Middle Eastern countries to use the natural gas themselves, saving the oil, since the sale of oil produces more export revenue.

Africa’s natural gas exports have fallen, in part because of depletion of the early natural gas fields in Algeria. In theory, Africa’s natural gas exports could rise to a substantial level, but it is doubtful this will happen quickly because of the large amount of capital required to build LNG export facilities. Furthermore, Africa is badly in need of fuel for itself. Local authorities may decide that if natural gas is available, it should be used for the benefit of the people in the area.

Australia’s natural gas exports have risen mostly as a result of the Gorgon LNG Project off the northwest coast of Australia. This project was expected to be high cost at $37 billion when it was approved in 2009. The actual cost soared to $54 billion, according to a 2017 cost estimate. The high (and uncertain) cost of large LNG projects makes investors cautious regarding new investments in LNG exports. S&P Global by Platts reported in June, 2021, “Australia’s own exports are expected to be relatively stable in the coming years.” This statement was made after saying that a project in Mozambique, Africa, is being cancelled because of stability issues.

The country with the largest increase in natural gas exports in recent years is the United States. The US is not shown separately in Figure 7, but it represents the largest portion of natural gas exported from North America. Prior to 2017, North America was a net importer of natural gas, including LNG from Trinidad and Tobago, Egypt, Algeria and elsewhere.

[4] The United States has a strange reason for wanting to export large quantities of natural gas overseas: Its natural gas prices have been too low for producers for a long time. Natural gas producers hope the exports will raise natural gas prices within the US.

Natural gas prices vary widely around the world because the fuel is expensive to ship and difficult to store. Figure 5 (above) shows that, at least since 2009, US natural gas prices have been unusually low.

The main reason why the price of natural gas dropped around 2009 seems to have been a ramp up in US shale oil production that started about this time. While the main objective of most of the shale drilling was oil, natural gas was a byproduct that came along. Oil producers were willing to almost give the natural gas away, if they could make money on the oil. However, they also had trouble making money on the oil extraction. That seems to be the reason why oil extraction from shale is now being reduced.

Figure 8 shows a chart prepared by the US Energy Administration showing US dry natural gas production, by type: non-shale, Appalachia shale and other shale.

Figure 8. Figure by EIA showing US natural gas production in three categories.

Based on Figure 8, the timing of the ramp up of natural gas from shale seems to correspond with the timing in the drop in natural gas prices. By 2008 (the first year shown on this chart), gas from shale formations had risen to well over 10% of US natural gas production. At this level, it would be expected to have an impact on prices. Adding natural gas to an already well-supplied market would be likely to reduce US natural gas prices because, with natural gas, the situation isn’t “build it, and demand will come.”

People don’t raise the temperature to which they heat their homes, at least not very much, simply because the natural gas price is lower. The use of natural gas as a transport fuel has not caught on because of all of the infrastructure that would be required to enable the transition. The one substitution that has tended to take place is the use of natural gas to replace coal, particularly in electricity generation. This likely means that a major shift back to coal use cannot really be done, although a smaller shift can be done, and, in fact, seems to already be taking place, based on EIA data.

[5] The reason that limits are a concern for natural gas is because the economy is very much more interconnected, and much more dependent on energy, than most people assume.

I think of the economy as being interconnected in much the same way as the many systems within a human being are interconnected. For example, humans have a circulatory system, or perhaps several such circulatory systems, for different fluids; economies have highway systems and road systems, as well as pipeline systems.

Humans require food at regular intervals. They have a digestive system to help them digest this food. The food has to be of the right kinds, not all sweets, for example. The economy needs energy of the right kinds, as well. It has many kinds of devices that use this energy. Intermittent electricity from wind or solar, by itself, doesn’t really work.

Human beings have kinds of alarms that go off to tell if there is something wrong. They feel hungry if they haven’t eaten in a while. They feel thirsty if they need water to drink. They may feel overheated if an infection gives them a fever. An economy has alarms that go off, as well. Prices rise too high for consumers. Or, companies go bankrupt from low market prices for their products. Or, widespread defaults on loans become a problem.

The symptoms we are seeing now with the UK economy relate to a natural gas import system that is showing signs of distress. It is pleasant to think that the central bankers or public officials can fix all problems, but they really cannot, just as we cannot fix all problems with our health.

[6] Inexpensive energy plays an essential role in the economy.

We all know that inexpensive food is far preferable to expensive food in powering our own personal economies. For example, if we need to spend 14 hours producing enough food to live on (either directly by farming, or indirectly by earning wages to buy the food), it is clear that we will not be able to afford much of anything other than food. On the other hand, if we can produce food to live on in 30 minutes a day (directly or indirectly), then we can spend the rest of the day earning money to buy other goods and services. We likely can afford many kinds of goods and services. Thus, a low price for food makes a big difference.

It is the same way with the overall economy. If energy costs are low, the cost of producing food is likely low because the cost of using tractors, fertilizers, weed killers and irrigation is low. From the point of view of any manufacturer using electricity, low price is important in being able to produce goods that are competitive in the global marketplace. From the point of view of a homeowner, a low electricity price is important in order to have enough funds left over after paying the electricity bill to be able to afford other goods and services.

Economists seem to believe that high energy prices can be acceptable, especially if the price of fossil fuels rises because of depletion. This is not true, without adversely affecting how the economy functions. We can understand this problem at our household level; if food prices suddenly rise, the rest of our budget must shrink back.

[7] If energy prices spike, these high prices tend to push the economy into recession.

A key issue with fossil fuels is depletion. The resources that are the least expensive to access and remove tend to be extracted first. In theory, there is a great deal more fossil fuel available, if the price rises high enough. The problem is that there is a balancing act between what the producer needs and what the consumer can afford. If energy prices rise very high, consumers are forced to cut back on their spending, pushing the economy into recession.

High oil prices were a major factor pushing the United States and other major users of oil into the Great Recession of 2007-2009. See my article in Energy, Oil Supply Limits and the Continuing Financial Crisis. In part, high oil prices made debt harder to repay, especially for low income workers with long commutes. It also made countries that used a significant share of oil in their energy mix less competitive in the world market.

The situation being encountered by some natural gas importers is indeed similar. Paying a very high price for imported natural gas is not a very acceptable situation. But not having electricity available or not being able to heat our homes is not very acceptable either.

[8] Conclusion. It is easy to be lulled into complacency by the huge natural gas reserves that seem to be available.

Unfortunately, it is necessary to build all of the infrastructure that is required to extract natural gas resources and deliver them to customers at a price that the customers can truly afford. At the same time, the price needs to be acceptable to the organization building the infrastructure.

Of course, more debt or money created out of thin air doesn’t solve the problem. Resources of many kinds need to be available to build the required infrastructure. At the same time, wages of workers need to be high enough that they can purchase the physical goods they require, including food, clothing, housing and basic transportation.

At this point, the problem with high prices is most noticeable in Europe, with its dependence on natural gas imports. Europe may just be the “canary in the coal mine.” The problem has the potential to spread to other natural gas prices and to other fossil fuel prices, pushing the world economy toward recession.

At a minimum, people planning the use of intermittent electricity from wind or solar should not assume that reasonably priced natural gas will always be available for balancing. One likely area for shortfall will be winter, as well as storing up reserves for winter (the problem affecting Europe now), since winter is when heating needs are the highest and solar resources are the lowest.

Gail Tverberg's picture
Thank Gail for the Post!
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