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As publicity stunts go, it was well timed. Centrica, which owns British Gas, the biggest supplier of fuel to homes in the U.K., chose Monday to reveal that it had signed a 20-year deal to buy American liquefied natural gas (LNG) for export to Britain. With most of the island shivering in the worst spring freeze for half a century and gas reserves down to less than two days supply, the news that America was riding to the rescue went down well.
No matter that the first LNG carriers won't be sailing from Sabine Pass in Louisiana until Cheniere's gas liquefaction plant is up and running in 2015. What does matter is that any future U.S. rescues will have to run through a blockade organised by American industry. A powerful U.S. industrial lobby, America's Energy Advantage is determined to keep U.S. gas at home for the benefit of U.S. customers. These are big chemical companies, such as Dow, Huntsman and Celanese as well as the metal manufacturers Nucor And Alcoa. They use natural gas as a feed stock and energy source and the low U.S. gas price, a third of the prevailing cost in Europe, is helping America's industrial recovery. Selling gas to foreigners would mean an end to cheap fuel, they reckon. "Rushing to sell natural gas to Europe and Asia risks damage to the U.S. economy," says Andrew Liveris, Dow's CEO.
There is a debate about how much LNG would have to sail east in order to cause a damaging uplift in the Henry Hub gas price and it's worth remembering that the shale gas revolution happened because extremely high gas prices encouraged investment.
Without good investment returns, the rate of drilling will certainly slow – but that's not the real issue. What is worrying is the rising protectionist sentiment, as well as whether America is sending the wrong message about energy markets, not just to its allies and friends, but to emerging markets.
Britain is desperate for more reliable long-term natural gas supplies, not just to meet peak demand in an exceptional winter but to generate power in the near future when old coal-fired electricity generators are taken off line. The message we are hearing from some powerful Americans is that U.S. gas will simply not be available at any price to foreigners.
In any other context, what the U.S. chemical firms are asking for would be called a subsidy, a price distortion created by building legal barriers to trade. These are frequently deplored by American exporters seeking to do business in Europe and Asia. For Mr. Liveris, the natural gas that bubbles out of the Barnett Shale in Texas is the property of the American people. Such a view might make sense in Europe, where natural resources beneath the subsoil are deemed to be owned by the state, to be exploited only under licence from the sovereign. But in America, it's different. It is the owners of land who profit from the subsoil rights and it is that ownership incentive which has created the shale gas boom which is delivering cheap energy to Dow.
The company most likely to benefit from a U.S. embargo on gas exports is not an American citizen. It is Gazprom, the Russian state utility, which depends hugely on high gas prices in Europe to support its inefficient and heavily subsidised domestic operations. A thriving transatlantic U.S. LNG trade would not be to Gazprom's liking. Perhaps the Russian gas company could usefully make a contribution to the lobby fund at America's Energy Advantage.
Carl Mortished is a contributor to ROB Insight, the business commentary service available to Globe Unlimited subscribers. Click here for more of his Insights.