First U.S. Company To Enter Export Market For Natural Gas

With supplies high and prices at historic lows, there's debate whether U.S. companies should be allowed to export the gas overseas for a higher price. Many energy companies have applied for government approval to ship liquefied natural gas worldwide. So far, only one company has gotten a license to do that in the past 30 years..

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You see the effect of the remarkable growth of American energy exploration if you visit a single place in Louisiana. It's the site of a liquefied natural gas terminal. Its backers once imagined this giant facility would be used to import gas from overseas. Now they imagine gas moving in the other direction. The growth of gas recovery from shale drilling prompts talk of many companies sending gas out of the United States. Only one company, though, has received a license to do that in the past 30 years.

NPR's Jackie Northam has our Business Bottom Line.

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DOUG LAWSON: I thought that was alligators laid up in there.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Doug Lawson is pretty good at spotting alligators. He sees them nearly every day here around this construction site.

LAWSON: Yeah, he's out there trying to enjoy a little sun, warm up a little bit.

NORTHAM: There are also brilliantly colored birds and families of wild hogs in this southern Louisiana marshland. They have a front row view of a $15 billion expansion project, which Lawson heads, at the Sabine Pass natural gas terminal.

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NORTHAM: The sound of heavy construction equipment at the terminal can be deafening, and at times almost rhythmic.

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NORTHAM: This is phase one of the expansion which will enable the facility to export U.S. natural gas worldwide. It will include two enormous refrigeration units used to cool the methane gas coming in to the terminal from pipelines across the country.

DAVID GILES: What you're looking at now is the large LNG storage tanks. There are five. Each can contain 160,000 cubic meters of liquefied natural gas.

NORTHAM: David Giles, a senior manager with Cheniere Energy, which owns the Sabine Pass terminal, says the diameter of each storage tank is as long as a football field. He says the terminal originally was built to be an import facility - that infrastructure is still in place, but not in use.

Stainless steel pipes that snake over acres of land are empty. Four tug boats, designed to guide huge LNG ships into the facility's deep harbor, now bob along the waterfront. A crew member passes time repainting numbers on the side of the tug.

The terminal was built at a time when it was widely believed there would be a deficit of natural gas here in the U.S. Charif Souki, the CEO of Cheniere Energy, says back then it was believed Sabine Pass would be busy and profitable for many years.

CHARIF SOUKI: And between 2005 and 2007, the company was considered the darling of Wall Street. It performed extremely well and everybody thought that we would be extremely successful in building the facility.

NORTHAM: But Souki says by the time construction was completed in 2008, there were already signs the industry was changing dramatically. Innovations in gas extraction - such as hydraulic fracturing or fracking, and horizontal drilling - created an abundance of natural gas here in the U.S.

Souki says no one realized how fast the shale gas revolution was happening.

SOUKI: By 2009, at the beginning of the year, people were still confused. By the middle of the year people were pretty much convinced that we weren't going to import. And by the end of the year we had become convinced that we actually had a shot at exporting.

NORTHAM: Souki, a Lebanese-born entrepreneur, says it took about another year to decide whether to take a risk and start the long and expensive process to export natural gas from Sabine Pass.

Guy Caruso, an energy specialist with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says that decision was met with a huge amount of skepticism. He says at the time natural gas prices were still high in the U.S. and it was hard to see how the costly process of liquefying and shipping the gas could actually turn a profit.

GUY CARUSO: In fact, when he first mentioned that idea, some of us were wondering how he could possibly think it would work. And now he's considered to be, you know, prescient and, you know, with a great vision. And...

NORTHAM: But that risk paid off. Cheniere Energy received federal permission to export to countries that do not have a free trade agreement with the U.S., including big gas importing countries such as China and India.

In the meantime, the cost of natural gas here in the U.S. began to collapse. Suddenly it seemed exporting LNG could turn a profit. Other companies began applying for export licenses. But by that time the Energy Department halted any new permits. The Obama administration is weighing the environmental impact of hydraulic fracking, and whether exporting LNG overseas will drive up the cost of natural gas here in the U.S.

Bill Cooper, the president of the Center for Liquefied Natural Gas, says this gives Cheniere Energy a competitive edge.

BILL COOPER: Because they are under construction and nobody else is.

NORTHAM: Cheniere's CEO Souki says they're looking for customers close to home.

SOUKI: Starting with Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Columbia, potentially Brazil, Chile, Uruguay. So you don't have to go that far. The next step geographically would be to go to Europe.

NORTHAM: The first tanker of LNG is expected to ship out of the Sabine Pass terminal in late 2015 or early 2016; it will mark the U.S. entry into the export market for natural gas - which until now has been dominated by countries such as Qatar and Russia.

Jackie Northam, NPR News.

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