Drillers Unleash ‘Super-Size’ Natural Gas Output

Drillers Unleash ‘Super-Size’ Natural Gas Output

Sept 1, 2015 By Russell Gold

Applying newer fracking methods to existing field offers potential for more and cheaper fuel

Newer production techniques being applied to a natural-gas rich area that stretches from northeast Texas into Louisiana are affecting U.S. pricing because of its potential to ‘super-size’ output in an area close to many fuel pipelines. Photo: Douglas Collier/The Shreveport Times/Associated Press

The U.S. may have far more natural gas than anyone imagined, all reachable at a profit even with today’s bargain-basement prices.
Experimental wells in Louisiana by explorers including Comstock Resources Inc. CRK -10.49 % and Chesapeake Energy Inc. CHK -3.07 % are proving highly lucrative thanks to modern drilling techniques and the sheer volume of fossil fuels that can be coaxed out of the ground.
The trick is applying supersize versions of the horizontal-drilling and fracking techniques that worked successfully elsewhere to an area that hasn’t seen this approach yet. The gains come from extending the lateral portions of wells by thousands of feet and pumping them full of enormous volumes of sand, chemicals and water to flush out more hydrocarbons.
So far, the impressive results have been confined to a small area in a single Louisiana parish near the Texas border. But if the approach works across the giant Haynesville Shale, which spans 120 miles across both states, the era of low American gas prices could extend for decades into the future, experts say.
“There’s a large likelihood that the United States will be enjoying very low gas prices for a very long time, maybe 20 years,” said Mark Papa, who has monitored Haynesville developments as a partner at Riverstone Holdings LLC, one of the biggest energy-focused private-equity firms in the U.S.

The field produces 8% of the nation’s natural gas, making it the second largest after the giant Marcellus Shale in the Northeast. Because it is located in Louisiana, near several interstate pipelines, potential export facilities and industrial consumers, an increase in gas production in the Haynesville has an outsize impact on gas prices across the entire country.
The cost of natural gas matters because the fuel increasingly powers the U.S. economy and is critical to the Obama administration’s push to reduce carbon emissions in electricity generation. American gas consumption has risen at a 2.4% annual growth rate for the past decade, while demand for coal has fallen by 2.7% and oil by less than 1%, according to the federal Energy Information Administration. Gas now is used to generate about 30% of U.S. electricity and heat nearly half of all American homes.
Domestic natural gas is abundant and inexpensive, largely due to the newer drilling and extraction techniques that came into widespread use a decade ago.
The Haynesville Shale was a popular location for energy companies to drill in 2007 and 2008, when U.S. gas prices briefly topped $13 a million British thermal units. Local governments in Louisiana, flush with tax receipts, handed out bonuses to employees and built new high-school football fields.
But the region’s gas was buried in deep, hot rocks, making it relatively expensive to produce. And when gas prices fell to below $4 a BTU in 2009, energy companies moved their drilling rigs elsewhere. Some went in search of more lucrative oil in North Dakota and Texas; others went northward to Pennsylvania, where the gas-rich Marcellus Shale was less costly to produce.
But a few companies never left and kept drilling a handful of wells each year. Recently, Comstock, Chesapeake and closely-held Vine Oil & Gas LP drilled Haynesville wells that suggest the gas is economic to exploit at today’s lower prices.
In August, Comstock officials told investors that it could get a 30% return on its new wells even with gas at $2.50 a million BTUs. The Frisco, Texas-based company plans to drill more wells in Louisiana’s Haynesville than it will in the oily Eagle Ford Shale in South Texas.
Comstock shares have tripled since it released news of its new Haynesville wells. “It was a bold move to return to the Haynesville and I know there were a lot of doubters out there,” Kim Pacanovksy, an equity researcher at Imperial Capital LLC, said on an investor call with Comstock management, “but you’re starting to see dividends now, so congratulations.”
Chesapeake’s management also is heralding its Haynesville results. Similar to Comstock, the company is drilling gas wells with longer horizontal legs and using more sand and water to crack open the rocks.
“Applying this technique has really doubled the area that we can drill in the Haynesville, Jason Pigott, a Chesapeake executive vice president, told investors.
‘A brilliant example of how the cost of supply continues to come down.’
— Robert Clarke , Wood Mackenzie research director
The costs to hydraulically fracture wells, the process of pumping water, sand and chemicals into the ground under high pressure to force out the fossil fuels, have fallen in the past year. This is particularly evident in the Haynesville, which the U.S. government classifies it as the second-largest gas deposit in America behind the Marcellus.
“This is a brilliant example of how the cost of supply continues to come down,” says Robert Clarke, a research director at Wood Mackenzie, an energy consultant. Newer Haynesville wells are producing more gas, are larger and are being drilled more quickly, he said.
Mr. Clarke cautioned that these experimental lower-cost wells have been drilled in a relatively small area of the Haynesville and by a small number of companies.
Mr. Papa, the former chief executive of EOG Resources, said abundant, inexpensive gas will have a profound impact on power generation markets and the overall economy.
“The power of the natural gas story on the U.S. economy is still underrated,” he said.
Write to Russell Gold at russell.gold@wsj.com

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U.S. Gas Exports Unlikely to Ease Tensions Over Ukraine

U.S. Gas Exports Unlikely to Ease Tensions Over Ukraine

Europe Will Still Rely on Russian Gas as First U.S. Shipments Are Two Years Away

By

SELINA WILLIAMS
March 18, 2014 12:50 p.m. ET
LONDON—Natural gas exports from the U.S. are unlikely to help ease the tensions between Europe and Russia over Ukraine as the first such shipments are about two years away, a senior executive from oil and gas company BG Group PLC said Tuesday.

The U.S. has vast supplies of cheap natural gas thanks to the fracking boom and could become one of the world’s top three exporters of liquefied natural gas by 2025, BG said. Over the past week, some U.S. politicians have urged the Obama administration to speed up oil and natural gas exports to weaken Russia’s hand over Ukraine.

Russia supplies about 30% of Europe’s gas requirements, half of which transit via Ukraine, a factor some believe has stifled European opposition to Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Federal law places heavy restrictions on U.S. companies from exporting natural gas to countries, like those in Europe, that aren’t among its free-trade partners.

Applications have already been made to export a total of over 260 million metric tons a year of LNG from the U.S. Even so BG, one of the biggest participants in the global LNG market, said it expects only about 60 million tons to 70 million tons of annual export capacity to be developed by 2025.

Andrew Walker, BG’s vice president of global LNG, said the company didn’t expect much fast-tracking of export applications unless there was a significant change in external circumstances.

BG clinched the first contract to export U.S. natural gas from the Sabine Pass, La., terminal in 2011. It expects those exports to commence in late 2015 or early 2016.

Mr. Walker said that the situation for gas prices and supplies in Europe was “fairly relaxed,” despite political tensions. The region only imported a net 35 million tons of LNG last year, the lowest level in nine years, with demand subdued due to weak economic growth, he said.

Meanwhile, global LNG supplies leveled off for a second consecutive year as new production was offset by unplanned outages, declines in output from existing plants and new projects ramping up more slowly than anticipated. This trend will keep LNG markets tight until at least the end of the decade, BG said in its annual global LNG outlook.

“We’re an industry in hiatus. Developing new supply, rather than demand is the principal challenge the industry faces,” Mr Walker said. Last year, only one in 10 new LNG projects awaiting final investment decisions was sanctioned.

Write to Selina Williams at selina.williams@wsj.com

Investing in natural gas

29 August 2013

Investing in natural gas

By Bryan Borzykowski
Is it a good idea to invest in natural gas?(Thinkstock)

British Columbia is best known for its beautiful mountain views and world-class skiing, but by 2015 it could be famous for something else: natural gas transportation.

That may not sound as exciting as a night out in Whistler, but if the Canadian province can successfully build North America’s first major liquefied natural gas terminal, it could dramatically alter the energy industry. With many people’s money tied up in energy stocks, it could boost the average investor’s returns too.

While other LNG terminals in places like Malaysia, Qatar, Yemen, Australia and Norway already send gas to Europe and Asia, it is cheap, abundant North American gas, that many utilities and gas companies are waiting to get their hands on. Demand for the commodity is highest in Asia.

One reason why people are excited about North American gas is that many gas-using companies want to buy from a locale that doesn’t face political risks, said Maartin Bloemen, a Toronto-based portfolio manager with Templeton Global Equity Group. European companies import a lot of gas from Russia, while Japanese and Chinese businesses buy from the Middle East.

Currently, natural gas sells for about $3.50 per 1,000 cubic feet in North America; it goes for $9 in Europe, and about $16 in the growing Asian market. Many investment experts think that once China, Japan and other markets get a hold of North America’s abundant supply of gas, the price gap between North American and Asian gas could close, said Ted Davis, portfolio manager at Denver-based Fidelity Investments.

A more global gas market could give people’s investment portfolios a boost. — Andrea Williams

A more global market could give people’s investment portfolios a boost, said Andrea Williams, a London-based portfolio manager with Royal London Asset Management. Since 2008, investors around the world have suffered from falling North American natural gas prices. The price of gas plummeted by about 85% over the last five years and that has impacted the earnings and stock prices of the many energy operations exposed to the region.

If North American gas prices rise, so too should the fortunes of the continent’s companies, said Davis. Conversely, if gas prices fall overseas — it’s likely they’ll drop somewhat after North American supply hits Asian shores, said Williams — the Russian, Middle Eastern and Australian companies that supply Europe and Asia now could be in trouble, she said.

Getting excited

While the first North American gas plants are still a couple of years away from being built, investors are already getting excited about North American investment opportunities, said Davis.

According to the US Energy Information Administration, North America produces the most natural gas out of any region in the world. With such rich resources, many companies will be able to grow production for decades, said Davis. Right now, all that production is a problem — there’s not enough domestic demand to reduce supply — but investors are anticipating that once gas goes offshore, that imbalance will be fixed.

Historically, European and emerging market producers traded at a premium to North American companies, but that’s starting to change. For example, Russian energy companies have traded at an average 24% premium over the past decade, but now trade at a 70% discount, said Davis. Major European energy companies have traded at a 26% premium over the last 10 years, but now trade at a 27% discount.

Despite the rising valuations, Davis still thinks that North America companies are the better bets in this changing energy environment.

Best bets?

The best bets are the mega-cap energy players, such as Chevron, Royal Dutch Shell and ExxonMobil, said both Williams and Bloemen. Many already have a stake in LNG terminals being built in North America. They are also buying stakes in terminals in Australia, which will help get gas off that continent, too.  In addition, these heavyweight companies have a leg up on signing long-term contracts with utility companies.

“You want someone who already has projects on the go,” Bloemen said. “Newer projects are way behind the eight ball and you want to own a company that can scale up easily.”

Williams is partial to integrated producers — companies that sell gas, but also produce and refine oil as well. These operations are more diversified and should therefore be better able to withstand short-term volatility in the sector than a pure gas producer, she said.

While Davis is keen on the bigger players too, he also suggests looking at small North American exploration and production companies, such as EOG Resources and Apache Corp, which have been much more successful at finding resources than their European and Asian peers.

These operations aren’t necessarily involved in transporting gas overseas, but they are assisting other nations, such as China, Latin America and the U.K., tap into their own gas fields.

“These are the companies that took the risk and unlocked these resources over time,” said Davis. “Their technology will be applied elsewhere in the world.”

Energy experts say there’s no question that global demand for natural gas is increasing and that the industry will forever change once natural gas gets shipped from North America to Asia. While it’s likely big global companies that will benefit first, nearly all investors with exposure to the energy sector should see some bump in their portfolio starting in 2015, said Williams.

“We’re happy to invest in this sector,” she said. “As emerging markets become more westernised, the need for gas will just go up.”

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