Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Chilling Jitters: Should the U.S. Export Natural Gas?

In an energy landscape full of oddities, U.S. producers salivating at the prospect being able to export natural gas at European or Asian prices is the latest. A supply glut along with record low natural gas prices domestically have led at least three U.S. liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals – Sabine Pass, Freeport and Lake Charles – to apply for export licenses. Several others are in various stages of doing so. It has given rise to a national debate over the impact of exports with at least one lawmaker proposing to ban exports of natural gas from the U.S. (Under the Natural Gas Act of 1938 any import or export of natural gas requires approval by the Department of Energy.)

U.S. Coal Plants Caught in Perfect Storm

Over 40,000 “Friends of Coal” in Kentucky display their support for coal on their vehicles making it the bestselling special interest license plate in the state.  Alas, the wholesale electricity market and coal plant economics are not among them.  The double-whammy of falling electricity prices and rising production costs has reduced profit margins to the point where many coal-fired power plants are no longer making any money from selling electricity.  Last month, Great River Energy, Minnesota’s second largest electric company, decided to mothball its newly built Spiritwood coal-fired generating station citing dismal economics.  According to the company the plant would have sold electricity at a loss most of the time.

There are many reasons why coal plants find themselves in this quagmire.

Electricity Prices: Are They Fair?

Imagine that you, as a resident of New Jersey, must pay at least $7 for a gallon of gasoline when motorists in Seattle can fill up their tank for just over $3 per gallon. Outrageous? But that is exactly how electricity is priced today.

Just, non-discriminatory, and economically sound are three qualities electric utilities often strive to achieve when setting electricity rates. Assuming they are reasonably successful, the rates U.S. residents actually pay for electricity indicate that these qualities can translate into vastly different monthly bills depending on geography – from just over $40 in Maine to nearly $170 in the state of Hawaii. From levies to fund local public policies to weather, a diverse set of factors contributes to the differences. Generation and transmission costs, however, are by far the biggest drivers of price divergence.

Natural Gas Prices: A Shale-shocked Calm?

In 2000, The Economist, noting rising natural gas prices, concluded that “natural gas will be a seller’s market for some time to come”. It was short-lived. Natural gas prices doubled or halved in single 12-month periods at least five times in the decade to 2010. Historically, prices have been much more boring: for nearly seven decades till the lifting of wellhead gas price controls in 1989, they changed, on average, less than 10 percent a year. That changed in the noughties when highly volatile gas prices became the norm. So much so that they claimed several victims: Amaranth Advisors, a hedge fund, closed after losing almost $7 billion betting on rising natural gas prices in one of the largest trading losses; MotherRock, one of the biggest traders of natural gas derivatives on Wall Street, shut down after running up huge losses.

Coal Power Plants: New Air Regulations And Compliance Options

Burning River Pale Ale, a beer, immortalizes June 22, 1969, when Cleveland’s polluted and lifeless Cuyahoga river spontaneously burst into flames. The incident galvanized national political support for several environmental initiatives including amendments to the Clean Air Act (CAA) and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1971. As part of CAA requirements, EPA recently proposed several rules that will affect power plants directly. The electric industry is concerned that power plants, unable to comply with the rules, will have to shut down. Old, inefficient, and marginal contributors to the grid most likely will. For the rest, economically sound options exist to comply in a timely manner and continue generating electricity. Compliance related economic activity could also play a macroeconomic role boosting demand and raising employment.