Enough About Oil, What About Natural Gas?

04/03/18 | Stacey Morris

Dedicating an entire post to natural gas may be a risky move, given that all anyone ever seems to talk about is crude (including me – crude spreads and crude correlations). However, for those of you who have been ignoring natural gas or who are sick of hearing about crude, this post is for you. If you’re a producer, natural gas prices may be somewhat frustrating given largely rangebound prices in recent years, but if you’re an energy infrastructure (EI) company operating a volume-driven business, the natural gas picture of rising supply and rising demand is constructive.

Supply growth benefits the EI companies that process and transport natural gas and natural gas liquids (NGLs).

The US has been leading the world in natural gas production since 2009 when it supplanted Russia to take the top spot. As of the March Short-Term Energy Outlook, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) expects dry natural gas production to grow by a whopping 8.1 Bcf/d in 2018 to 81.7 Bcf/d. That would mark a record for annual average growth and represents an 11% increase from 2017. For additional perspective, Canada produced just under 16 Bcf/d of natural gas in 2017. In other words, the US is expected to grow in one year by a volume equivalent to half of Canada’s total production — and Canada is the fifth largest gas producer in the world! The EIA expects continued growth of 1.0 Bcf/d in 2019, which should be viewed in the context of a much higher production base in 2018 to compare against. To be clear, these numbers are just for dry gas production. Gross withdrawals, which includes natural gas plant liquids and production of gas used as fuel, was up to a record high of 96.6 Bcf/d in December as shown below.

EI companies are key players in the natural gas value chain through their involvement in gathering and processing, as well as transporting usable natural gas and NGLs to end markets. As a reminder, raw natural gas must be gathered by pipeline and moved to a processing facility, where it is processed to remove impurities and separate NGLs. NGLs must be further processed at a fractionation plant. Increased production of natural gas and NGLs means greater volumes for EI companies to transport and process. Several companies have announced new gas processing and fractionation projects recently:

In the MLP space specifically, companies with leverage to the growth in natural gas production include those MLPs that are classified by the Energy MLP Classification Standard (EMCSSM) as Gathering & Processing |Natural Gas MLPs and Pipeline Transportation | Natural Gas MLPs. For context, 29.1% of the AMZI Index constituents by weight are classified as Gathering & Processing |Natural Gas MLPs, while 29.3% of the constituents by weight are classified as Pipeline Transportation | Natural Gas MLPs.

EI companies will help meet demand in the US and abroad.

In the coming years, global demand for natural gas is expected to increase. The chart below shows energy consumption in the US by fuel, with natural gas (and renewables) noticeably gaining through 2050. More broadly, the International Energy Agency expects global natural gas consumption to increase by 45% to 2040, led by industrial demand. EI companies will play an important role in satisfying growing demand in the US and abroad. For the first time in sixty years, the US was a net exporter of natural gas in 2017, but it likely won’t be the last time.

EI companies not only process natural gas and NGLs into usable form, but they also provide the pipeline and storage infrastructure to move hydrocarbons to demand centers, including borders or coasts for exports. As shown below, pipeline exports to Mexico have increased significantly in recent years and were up to 4.4 Bcf/d in December 2017. Recent startups of pipelines to Mexico include OKE’s joint-venture Roadrunner Pipeline with the first phase online in early 2016 and Energy Transfer’s (ETP) joint-venture Trans-Pecos and Comanche Trail Pipelines coming into service last year. Additional capacity is anticipated, including the expected startup of Enbridge’s (ENB) Valley Crossing Pipeline in October 2018 and the phase three expansion of Roadrunner in 2019.

Increasingly, natural gas will be exported as liquefied natural gas (LNG) to global markets, as liquefaction capacity in the US grows from 3.6 Bcf/ to 9.6 Bcf/d by year-end 2019. Several projects are in various stages of development but two terminals are exporting today. Cheniere’s (LNG, CQH, CQP) Sabine Pass terminal has been in operation since 2016, and Dominion Energy’s (D) Cove Point terminal shipped its first cargo last month. Within the MLP space, ETP and Energy Transfer Equity (ETE) are developing an LNG export project in Lake Charles, Louisiana.

EI companies also participate in the export of NGLs. ETP recently announced a new joint venture for an ethane export facility on the Gulf Coast that will supply ethane crackers in China. ETP already facilitates ethane exports to Canada through its Mariner West system and can supply NGLs to both domestic and international markets from its Marcus Hook complex in Pennsylvania. EPD owns marine terminals on the Houston Ship Channel that export propane, butane, and ethane. TRGP is also capable of exporting propane and butane through its facilities near Houston.

Bottom line

While rangebound prices have perhaps made natural gas an afterthought for energy infrastructure investors, the combination of growing supply and growing demand is fundamentally positive for those companies involved in natural gas gathering, processing and transportation. And the natural gas growth story isn’t limited to the US, as EI companies will increasingly help meet natural gas and NGL demand growth overseas by supporting exports. Natural gas probably won’t be stealing the spotlight from crude anytime soon, but investors in EI companies should be encouraged by the solid fundamentals for US natural gas from an infrastructure perspective.