The energy milestones just keep coming. In September, the United States officially became a net exporter of crude oil and refined products for the first time on a monthly basis in almost 70 years, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).
What seemed impossible a decade ago is now real, and at huge benefit to the U.S. economy, balance of trade, and geopolitical position, with even more potential milestones ahead.
For example, in early November, EIA predicted that the U.S. would become a net energy exporter in 2020, with natural gas and natural gas liquids added to the calculation. This is a feat that hasn’t been accomplished since 1953.
The exporter status comes after decades of conventional wisdom stating that the U.S. would become more dependent on imported energy with each passing decade, at great cost to our economy and national security. Instead, and despite years of being told “we can’t drill our way out of this,” shale development has completely reversed the course of global energy markets and lessened the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries’ (OPEC) ability to control the market.
Just last month, OPEC stated in its annual report that it expected demand for its oil to decrease for the next seven years, falling to an average of 32.7 million barrels a day in 2023, losing market share to U.S. shale oil.
Furthermore, despite talk of the impending, long-term death of fossil energy, the International Energy Agency has concluded that demand for oil and natural gas looks strong through 2050.
However, make no mistake, the U.S. oil and gas sector faces challenges. Lower commodity prices are impacting exploration budgets, with most U.S. producers expected to slow down exploration in 2020, while trying to keep their production levels steady.
Natural gas producers in the Permian Basin, Bakken, and Eagle Ford shale continue to flare gas in areas where oil is being produced but no pipeline infrastructure is in place. At the same time, there is growing public sentiment against flaring and NGOs are beginning to monitor and publish the amount of flaring that is taking place. The federal government’s announcement that it would not move forward with a methane rule further complicates issues around flaring.
Availability of investment capital is another challenge that the oil and gas industry is facing. Investors, both institutional and individual, have grown less attracted to fossil energy.
This is in part due to lower returns on capital investment when compared to other sectors. It is also due to the fact that investors want these companies to focus on returns rather than on growth, a reversal from the historical norm whereby executives have been rewarded for increasing production and growing reserves. Capital is also being impacted by the fossil divestment movement, public concerns over climate change, and a growing but mistaken belief that demand for oil and gas will peak in the coming decade.
Finally, public policies are also a looming threat for U.S. oil and gas production. While the Trump administration’s policies have generally been favorable to fossil energy, support for the Green New Deal, bans on hydraulic fracturing, moratoria on production on federal lands and waters, and punitive tax proposals have been loudly vocalized in the Democratic presidential debates and in the House of Representatives. Thus, the U.S. could be a mere election away from a radically different energy policy.
With the U.S. facing a slew of challenges from the investment community, the public, and policymakers, what can industry and its supporters do to stave off these looming threats to the continuation of the nation’s new era of energy dominance? Fight back on all fronts.
Industry can no longer afford to keep its head in the sand with regard to climate. While individual companies are talking about reducing emissions, industry as a whole is not sufficiently communicating about how it can and will be part of the solution. Although natural gas has made the single biggest contribution to reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the U.S. and globally and has the best potential for doing so in the future, nobody seems to be talking about it.
To change the dynamic, individual companies and industry as a whole need to improve ESG performance and let the world, especially the investment community, know about it. They need to maintain and increase investments to advance and support technological innovations and initiatives that not only reduce GHG emissions but capture and sequester carbon. Finally, they need to present a realistic story about how oil and natural gas are going to be necessary to meet the world’s energy needs for decades to come and how natural gas is the best solution to reducing emissions globally while at the same time addressing localized air pollution and energy poverty in the developing world.
The U.S. oil and gas industry has a good story to tell. With the greatest technical minds in the world for addressing climate change, energy poverty, and many of the other great challenges of our time, it needs to act now while there is still an opportunity to shine.
Jack Belcher is senior vice president of Cornerstone Energy Solutions and advises energy, transportation and financial services clients on government relations, regulatory affairs, risk management, ESG management, coalition building and stakeholder relations. He is also managing director of the National Ocean Policy Coalition.
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