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Robert Bryce : The New Natural Gas Paradigm:
30,000 Trillion cubic feet (and counting)



On Tuesday (11/10), shortly after the International Energy Agency released its World Energy Outlook for 2009, the mainstream media went into overdrive with stories about the agency’s outlook for oil demand and oil prices. Lots of attention was paid to the claims by an unnamed source within the IEA who told the Guardian that the agency was downplaying the risk of declining oil supplies and that, in the words of the Guardian, the “world is much closer to running out of oil than official estimates admit.”

While the peak oil debate will surely rage on for years to come, perhaps the more important finding in the IEA report was completely ignored. In the executive summary, the IEA concludes that “The long-term global recoverable gas resource base is estimated at more than 850 tcm (850 trillion cubic meters.” That translates to just over 30,000 trillion cubic feet of gas. That’s more than double the 2008 estimate put forward by the IEA, when it said that “Ultimately recoverable remaining resources of conventional natural gas, including remaining proven reserves, reserves growth and undiscovered resources, could amount to well over 400 tcm.”

But in 2008, the agency didn’t include unconventional gas – that is, gas from shale, tight sands, and coalbed methane -- in its estimate of recoverable gas resources. The IEA’s latest report provides further proof that the shale gas revolution necessitates a re-thinking of our approach to natural gas, and therefore, energy policy.

Indeed, the new estimates provide evidence of a new natural gas paradigm, one that is based on abundant supplies of methane in a marketplace that is increasingly global.

While the peak oil crowd frets about eminent doom and gloom, the IEA’s estimate shows that at current rates of gas production, the available gas resources could last for 280 years. Now to be clear, resources are not reserves. In oilfield parlance, a “resource” is something that’s probably out there. “Reserves” is a legal term that applies to in-the-ground hydrocarbons that have been surveyed by drilling and other agreed-upon techniques. In 2009, BP estimated proved global gas reserves at about 6,534 Tcf, or less than a quarter of the IEA’s latest estimate of global gas resources. The same distinctions between reserves and resources apply to the US. The latest BP Statistical Review of World Energy puts proved US gas reserves at about 238 Tcf. In June the Potential Gas Committee estimated US gas resources at about 2,000 Tcf.

While the resources-versus-reserves caveat applies, the enormous gas resource estimates being put forward, which are largely a result of the incredible success that the US gas industry has shown in its ability to produce gas from shale beds, shows that natural gas offers a serious alternative path forward when it comes to discussions of carbon dioxide emissions and climate change.

The new gas paradigm is emerging at a time when global gas trade is booming. Between 2000 and 2007, global trade in LNG increased by about 67%. And new gas liquefaction capacity has led the IEA to warn of “the prospect of a large glut in gas supplies persisting to at least the mid-2010s.”

In 2008, global gas liquefaction capacity was 280 billion cubic meters, and by 2013, the IEA expects total liquefaction capacity to grow by nearly 50% to some 409 billion cubic meters. This year, four major LNG liquefaction projects – Sakhalin II, Yemen LNG, Tangguh, and Qatar Mega Trains – are expected to come online. And given the ongoing economic slump, many gas analysts believe that much of that new capacity will not have ready buyers.

Nevertheless, more liquefaction capacity appears to be in the offing, and that new capacity will likely specialize in monetizing stranded gas. On October 8, Shell announced that plans to build a floating LNG liquefaction facility which, when completed, will be deployed off the northwest coast of Australia. The vessel, expected to cost about $5 billion, will be nearly 500 meters long. Australia alone has some 140 Tcf of stranded gas and the news that Shell may be building as many as 10 floating LNG vessels could allow Australia and other countries to turn that stranded gas into cash. In addition to Shell, Japan’s Inpex Holdings and Australia’s Santos Ltd, are both considering floating LNG projects.

The boom in LNG liquefaction capacity has spawned an increase in the number of new LNG carriers. In 2008, a record-breaking 53 new LNG carriers were added to the global fleet, representing a 25% increase in LNG cargo capacity.

The LNG market is expanding at the very same time that America’s need for LNG imports has largely disappeared. That point was made succinctly by Ian Cronshaw of the IEA during the World Gas Conference in Buenos Aires in October when he said “The United States is now a virtual liquefied natural gas exporter because all the LNG that was supposed to be going there is now going somewhere else.”

Thus, in addition to newly available shale gas, there appears to be a surge in the availability of new LNG. There’s even talk of using shale gas to produce LNG. Kitimat LNG, a Calgary-based startup, is proposing to build a liquefaction terminal in British Columbia that will use Canadian shale gas as a feedstock. If Kitimat is built, the LNG it produces will be marketed to buyers in Asia.

And there’s the question of Iran, which is sitting atop huge gas reserves that have only barely been touched. The IEA’s latest report says “The Iranian gas industry is still in its infancy, as only a small proportion of Iran’s massive gas reserves of 29 tcm have been developed. Only 5% of the total gas reserve has been produced to date…. More than 60% of Iran’s gas reserves are located in non-associated fields, most of which have not yet been developed.” Of course, analysts have been predicting for years that Iran will begin exporting its gas sometime soon, real soon. It hasn’t happened yet. But what will happen if Iran finally gets its act together and begins providing gas to the world market?

What makes the new gas paradigm so intriguing is that no one saw it coming. Shale gas was, as deForest Ralph wrote earlier this year, the “black swan” in the natural gas sector.

Lee Raymond, the famously combative CEO of Exxon Mobil, didn’t see the black swan. Back in 2005, Raymond solemnly declared that “gas production has peaked in North America.” Raymond, who retired in 2006, went on to say that his company was intent on building a new pipeline that would bring Arctic gas from Canada and Alaska south and that more natural gas supplies would be needed “unless there’s some huge find that nobody has any idea where it could be.”

The “huge find” that Raymond was looking for was right here in the US in the form of shale gas. And the implications of that huge find are only now beginning to be understood. The new gas paradigm is here. We’d better get used to it.

Robert Bryce lives in Austin, Texas and is managing editor of Energy Tribune. He is the author of Cronies: Oil, the Bushes, and the Rise of Texas, America's Superstate. His his third book, Petroleum Soldiers, will be published this fall. He can be reached at: Petroleumworld does not necessarily share these views.

Editor's Note: This commentary was originally published by Energy Tribune, Nov 13, 2007. Petroleumworld reprint this article in the interest of our readers

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