U.S. Has A Natural Gas Problem: Too Much Of It

Oil field workers drill into the Gypsum Hills near Medicine Lodge, Kan. Hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," to coax out oil and gas has led to a natural gas boom that the U.S. market is having trouble absorbing.

Oil field workers drill into the Gypsum Hills near Medicine Lodge, Kan. Hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," to coax out oil and gas has led to a natural gas boom that the U.S. market is having trouble absorbing. Orlin Wagner/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Orlin Wagner/AP

There's a boom in natural gas production in the United States, a boom so big the market is having trouble absorbing it all.

The unusually warm weather this winter is one reason for the excess, since it reduced the need for people to burn gas to heat their homes. A bigger reason, however, is the huge increase in gas production made possible by new methods of coaxing gas out of shale rock formations.

Peter Ricchiuti, a professor at Tulane University in New Orleans and an expert on oil and gas production, says the normal supply-and-demand laws of economics aren't working as they used to in the industry.

"Historically, this has always been kind of a self-governing mechanism," Ricchiuti says. "When natural gas prices got too low, you'd start to see the industry lay down rigs until prices went back up again, and it was very effective. It was sometimes jokingly referred to as the 'Redneck OPEC.' "

OPEC refers to the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, a grouping of the world's major oil producers.

That's not happening this time, and Ricchiuti says there are a couple of reasons the industry isn't responding as usual to price pressures. One reason is that during the shale gas explosion of the past few years, production companies spent big bucks leasing mineral rights in vast shale gas areas from Pennsylvania to Texas.

Joe Averett lives in the middle of one of those areas, the Haynesville Shale in northern Louisiana. The oil and gas industry veteran says drilling continues there because many of the three-year leases will expire soon if the producers don't drill.

"They're still drilling wells just to hold the lease, and them having to do that, that's continued the excess production," Averett says.

Averett says it's not unusual for gas production to outstrip demand at this time of the year, as stocks begin to be built for the next winter. Today, there's dramatically more produced than consumed, he says, and that has him worried.

"I think there's a reasonable chance [we] will fill up the storage this year," he says.

Averett knows a lot about storage. He's retired now, but his company, Crystal Gas Storage, built some of the huge salt-dome caverns for natural gas in Texas and Louisiana.

Ricchiuti cites one more reason production continues despite the low natural gas prices.

"About a third of all natural gas wells have a certain amount of what we call natural gas liquids," he says, "that could be propane or butane, things like that. And that's very valuable."

In fact, it would make economic sense for producers to keep pumping even if the natural gas price goes to zero.

Fred Callon, a small independent producer based in Mississippi, says that same logic holds for some of his crude oil wells in the Permian Basin in Texas.

"Our projects out in the Permian Basin, of course, are driven by the crude oil prices, and to the extent that they have associated gas, then that is sold, and so there is new natural gas coming to the market," Callon says.

Ricchiuti says there's obviously great promise to go along with the problems associated with America's newly found vast amounts of cheap natural gas.

"In the long term, you've got all these positives," Ricchiuti says. "It's clean burning, it's domestically produced [and] it's abundant. [It] has all of these great properties. It seems like a godsend, but at least in the short term, we're in real trouble down here."

Ricchiuti says he thinks that ultimately, the supply-and-demand equation will reach balance. After all, every new electrical generation plant on the drawing board in the U.S. burns natural gas.

In addition, trucking firms are looking at a crash program to build natural gas refueling stations along the interstate highway system to refuel new long-haul trucks that burn natural gas. In the meantime, though, the overabundance of natural gas is a threat to many producers.

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