It may be the beginning of the end of ultra-cheap U.S. natural gas . Less than a week after prices dipped below a decade low of $2 (U.S.) per million British thermal units, American authorities approved the nation's first big gas export plant in half a century on Monday. Assuming Cheniere Energy can secure financing, its liquefied natural gas terminal will provide struggling producers a way out of the gloomy domestic market. That may eventually force U.S. consumers and chemical producers to pay more. But it should also create a more stable market.
Global energy markets have been screaming for America's natural gas bounty. The rise of fracking has caused prices stateside to plunge to about a fifth the level in Europe and about an eighth the Asian price.
At full capacity, Cheniere's Sabine Pass plant will produce just over two billion cubic feet of liquefied natural gas per day, equal to about 3 per cent of daily U.S. gas production. And where Cheniere has gone, others will follow. Sabine Pass and other projects currently up for approval could eventually export up to 12 billion cubic feet of gas per day, according to estimates from energy consultancy IHS Cera, or the same as Russia's daily sales to Europe.
It's unlikely that all the planned export capacity will get built. Political opposition or lower global gas prices may rein in the ambitions of exporters eventually. And first production from Sabine Pass isn't expected before 2015.
But eventually, U.S. and global prices should start to converge, taking the pressure off American drillers. Many have already idled rigs or are diverting more resources to recovering dearer crude. Without an export pressure valve, that would have been a recipe for future underinvestment, supply shortages and volatile prices.
The long-run effect of higher prices on the U.S. power mix is less clear. The low price of gas has led to a mini-industrial renaissance, which might easily slow. But solar and wind producers would benefit from less intense competition. For power regulators thinking 25 years ahead, the fixed costs of green fuels might just have renewed appeal.