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Natural gas, left in the dust by oil’s rally, could soon be rising for reasons other than seasonal temperature variations. The explosion in U.S. shale gas production, and modest increases in other non-conventional gas sources like coal bed methane, have meant stiff competition for Canada’s oil and gas sector in recent years. Our natural gas output has plummeted by 25 per cent in the last half-decade as lower cost production stateside has made inroads into traditional markets for Canadian gas in both the U.S. and in Eastern Canada.
Though less widely recognized than the discount on the oil side, Canadian natural gas producers have suffered from a “double discount” of their own lately. Compounding the generally soft pricing environment, the differential between AECO’s key reference price for Alberta production and gas at Henry Hub, the key U.S. pricing point has touched $2/MM Btu recently. Pipeline toll changes, which are more significant for Canadian than U.S. shale production, given longer distances to market, have contributed to the wider differential. Bearing witness to divergences in the two fuels’ price trajectories, gas-levered stocks have also significantly underperformed oil-levered ones on the TSX.
There are signs that the period of exceptionally low prices that has dented this key Canadian resource may be coming to an end. That doesn’t mean a return any time soon to the past decade’s double-digit price peaks, but it does mean $4-5 is likely to be the new norm as compared to prices as low as $1.80/MM Btu, a quarter or less of oil, in energy equivalent terms. We expect North American natural gas prices to average $4.30/MM Btu in 2014, up from an average of about $3.70 this year. Events like the recent energy-centred Abe-Harper summit, and British Columbia’s efforts to reach agreement on a tax framework for LNG exports, have also focused attention on Canada’s own world class shale gas resources.
Challenges remain, but longer term those could potentially offer economic and other spinoffs comparable to the U.S. shale gas revolution.
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