LNG Import or Export—Should the Public Care Which?

Posted on February 6, 2012 by Richard Glick

Just a few years ago, the price of natural gas was high enough to encourage development of liquefied natural gas (LNG) import terminals to receive LNG from foreign gas producers and then “re-gassify” such gas before sending it to existing interstate pipelines.  Three such facilities were proposed in Oregon, after a failed attempt to site an LNG terminal in California.  The presumption had been that due to the high capital cost of the terminal and related pipeline, and because of market constraints, there would be but one terminal on the West Coast. 

That dynamic has shifted with discovery of abundant domestic shale gas deposits and attendant lowering of gas prices, and LNG terminal developers are thinking “export,” instead of import.  Should this change in the LNG business model matter to anyone?

Of the proposed Oregon projects, two remain: at the Port of Coos Bay and on the Skipanon Peninsula in Youngs Bay, at the mouth of the Columbia.  The projects have generated controversy, with opponents asserting public safety concerns (i.e. uncontrolled “blast zones”), harm to aquatic habitat, creation of a terrorist target, usurpation of land owner rights along the pipeline route, and all apparently with no benefit to Oregon because the gas may only be shipped to our evil sister to the south, California.  Of course, these are all issues that the FERC and state permitting reviews are designed to uncover, assess and prescribe mitigation for and those processes are incomplete.
Natural gas prices have come down to the point that an LNG import facility may no longer make sense.  On the other hand, demand for natural gas in Asia is high, particularly in Japan following the Fukushima nuclear disaster, which in turn raises prices.  Thus, the two remaining Oregon LNG projects are actively considering conversion to export facilities, and there is enough global demand—and plenty of surplus Canadian and U.S. natural gas—that more than one would be needed to make much of a dent in that surplus.  This result has enraged environmental activists, as though it is somehow unfair to change the economic model on which a proposed project is based.

There is nothing about a LNG export facility that is so different—either in form or impact on land or resources—such that it should affect how the public views LNG.  The two concepts have approximately the same footprints, and to the untrained observer, would look the same.  In the case of the Skipanon Peninsula project, tanks are the most prominent structures; import and export tanks are identical, except that an export facility would require only two, whereas an import terminal requires three.  The dock/pier arrangements for import or export facilities are identical.  The two concepts have very similar (and very limited) environmental impacts, all of which will be reviewed in detail in the various state and FERC regulatory processes.  In addition, an LNG export facility would provide four times as many construction jobs (about 10,000 man-years) and almost twice the amount of long-term employment originally anticipated from the project.  The project represents a $5 billion investment in a region with no apparent industrial development alternatives on the horizon, and with property tax rates right around 1%, such a project would infuse approximately $50 million in local annual tax assessments.

There are some who suggest allowing exports of LNG would raise domestic natural gas prices and thereby place the U.S. economy at a disadvantage.  But of course the U. S. participates in a global economy and gas prices are driven by global market conditions.  A commodity will find a market, seeking the highest prices available, wherever it originates.  The U. S. exports approximately 50 million metric tons of grain every year and that probably raises U.S. domestic food prices a little, but would anybody seriously argue that we should stop grain exports?

Markets will determine whether a shift to exporting LNG makes economic sense.  Environmental effects and other public interest issues related to an LNG export terminal and related pipeline projects should be judged on their merits by the federal and state agencies charged to do so.