Natural Gas is Still King of the Hill

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The truth can seldom be obfuscated for long. Despite myriad headlines advocating green new deals and attacking fossil fuels, natural gas is riding high and is very much still “King of the Hill” when it comes to energy.

A recent Today In Energy post from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), in fact, was a marvel to behold in that respect showing that natural gas consumption for electric power generation has skyrocketed over the last two decades and continues to do so. Here is the DOE chart demonstrating it:

The year 2020, of course, was a remarkable one in the sense that COVID lockdowns depressed demand in many energy sectors. But everyone still needed electricity, and gas is the cleanest and most economical way to generate it at a moment’s notice when and where needed.

So, the electric power sector showed growth despite the artificial recession imposed by bureaucrats and politicians obsessed with a different sort of power. And, look at the long-term trends: Gas use is soaring in both the electrical power and industrial sectors. It is experiencing slow but steady growth in transportation as well (emphasis added).

Natural gas consumption in the U.S. electric power sector grew to a record-high 11.6 Tcf in 2020, up 3% compared with 2019. The U.S. electric power sector has consumed more gas than any other sector in five of the past six years… 

Natural gas has become an increasingly important source of energy for U.S. electricity over the past several years. [It] has remained the primary source of electricity generation in the United States since it surpassed coal in 2016. More than 100 coal plants have been replaced with or converted to gas since 2011.

But, this isn’t the most exciting news. No, that honor goes to the growth in gas exports and further securing of our energy independence if we do not throw it all away, which seems to be the inclination of some of our leaders today:

U.S. gas exports increased to a record-high 5.3 Tcf in 2020, up 13% compared with 2019. U.S. exports of gas have grown substantially over the past decade, and in 2017, exports surpassed imports … for the first time since 1957. 

About 55% of U.S. natural gas exports in 2020 were sent by pipeline to Mexico and Canada. Most of the rest was shipped overseas as LNG. Mexico receives more U.S. natural gas exports than any other country, and U.S. gas exports to Mexico reached a record high of 2.0 Tcf in 2020. 

U.S. LNG exports also increased to a record high in 2020, and almost half went to Asia. Natural gas imports in 2020 decreased to less than 2.6 Tcf, the lowest level since 1993. Nearly all U.S. natural gas imports originate from Canada. 

Natural gas production in the United States has generally increased over the past decade because of the widespread adoption of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing techniques that allow operators to more economically produce natural gas from shale formations.

Yes, gas is still very much King of the Hill, but there is still more. The International Energy Agency is pushing green energy everywhere, in every manner possible, to create opportunities for hedge-fund investors to collect rent from the government. It cannot deny the truth any more than DOE can. Here’s what it currently says on its website, in fact, updated as recently as September 2020:

Natural gas is the cleanest burning and fastest-growing fossil fuel, contributing to almost one-third of total energy demand growth through the last decade, more than any other fuel.

Natural gas is the fastest-growing fossil fuel, accounting today for 23% of global primary energy demand and nearly a quarter of electricity generation.

Its storability and the operational flexibility of gas-fired power plants allows natural gas to respond to both seasonal and short-term demand fluctuations and to enhance electricity supply security in power systems with a growing share of variable renewables.

The natural gas market is becoming increasingly globalized, driven by the availability of shale gas and the rising supplies of flexible liquefied natural gas. As gas trade increases, so does the interconnectivity of gas markets, creating new facets and dimensions of natural gas security, as a demand or supply shock in one region may now have repercussions in others.

That last paragraph says it all and ties in directly to what DOE is explaining regarding LNG exports. The hill on which natural gas is king, in other words, is the globe and not merely the United States of America.

Moreover, natural gas is slated to grow in its royal role because of what became blindingly apparent in Texas recently; that renewable energy is simply not dependable and always, but always, requires a readily dispatchable source of energy as a base generator of the power that ensures our energy security. 

Combine this fact with the reality that using natural gas merely as a backup is inherently uneconomic, and the future demand for even more natural gas is impossible to deny. Nothing else offers both the environmental and financial advantages that gas presents as an energy resource. Green energy talk is cheap, but the costs of implementation and the risks are very high indeed.

The IEA admits this in its World Energy Outlook 2019 (emphasis added):

 Natural gas had a remarkable year in 2018, with a 4.6% increase in consumption accounting for nearly half of the increase in global energy demand. Since 2010, 80% of growth has been concentrated in three key regions: the United States, where the shale gas revolution is in full swing; China, where economic expansion and air quality concerns have underpinned rapid growth; and the Middle East, where gas is a gateway to economic diversification from oil. Natural gas continues to outperform coal or oil in both the Stated Policies Scenario (where gas demand grows by over a third) and the Sustainable Development Scenario (where gas demand grows modestly to 2030 before reverting to present levels by 2040).

Note that natural gas is touted for its ability to support economic expansion while simultaneously addressing air quality, which most will say is an appropriate definition of sustainability. Notice, too, that natural gas is projected by the IEA to outperform coal and oil and, more importantly, to also outdo “sustainable development.”

The agency defines the latter to include “accelerated deployment of renewables and energy efficiency measures, together with a pickup in production of biomethane and later of hydrogen.” What this means, therefore, is that natural gas beats all of these, although the IEA doesn’t quite say it that way. And hydrogen, of course, is likely to be produced using natural gas.

There is only one conclusion that can be drawn from all of this, and it is that natural gas is here to stay in a very big way.

 About the author: Tom Shepstone is the owner of Shepstone Management Company Inc., a planning and research consulting firm located in northeastern Pennsylvania. He has advised many counties in both New York state and Pennsylvania, as well as other states, on economic development strategies, especially as they relate to rural and agricultural areas. He is also the publisher of NaturalGasNOW.org, a blog focused on the same objective.

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