LNG exports still iffy, even if they win approval

The Obama administration looks like it will approve exports of liquefied natural gas. But that doesn't mean LNG exports will take off.

Yuriko Nakao/Reuters/File
A liquefied natural gas (LNG) tanker is anchored off a port in Yokohama, south of Tokyo, earlier this month. The US is likely to approve export terminals of LNG, which exporters hope would generate high profits in places like Asia, where natural gas prices are much higher than in the United States.

Once everything in Washington settles down in the new year, the Department of Energy is likely to move fairly quickly to approve export terminals for liquefied natural gas. 

However, just because the DOE approves LNG terminals does not mean that a boom in LNG exports will necessarily follow. A recent report commissioned by the DOE actually predicts that there will be very few exports, unless there is a major increase in demand from Asia and no new production in Europe. This scenario would cause prices to increase by $1.09 per thousand cubic feet and the United States would export about 8.4 trillion cubic feet of gas. 

"The math doesn't add up on the US's ambitions to export natural gas," a recent article in Quartz, a digital news site, makes the case for low exports. Author Steve LeVine goes through the price assumptions and says that there is a possible profit for US drillers by shipping it abroad, but concludes that already established and lower-cost producers (notably Qatar and Norway) would undercut American exporters.

Ultimately, the best use of US exports may not be as a constant stream but as a safety valve. In this scenario, if the price of gas falls too low, then producers would have the opportunity to make more money abroad. This would level out some of the price busts.

Many critics of LNG exports point to the cost-prohibitive nature of the liquefying and transport process, which can add about $5 per thousand cubic feet to the price. That's a questionable long-term assumption; Just because the price of liquefaction and transport is so high now, we shouldn't expect that it will always remain so. The long history of innovation is that technology development and commoditization will reduce these costs.

So, just because the numbers don't add up now, it doesn't mean that they won't in the future. And it's definitely not a reason for the government to prohibit exports. The government should permit the private sector to export as much as it wants (I am on record as saying that there is no good reason for permits to be needed at all), and then let the market decide if that's a good idea.

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