Will Natural Gas become a Geo-Political Tool or a Modern Weapon?

When President George W. Bush invaded Iraq on March 19, 2003, he had over 100,000 army troops mobilized to the region. It was a formidable maneuver that launched a 10+ year conflict with questionable outcomes. Today, President Obama is on the verge of another conflict in the Ukraine that involves Russia’s occupation of Crimea. Unlike Bush, however, Obama and Congress are eyeing natural gas exports as their weapon of choice to rein in Vladimir Putin from reclaiming territories along the perimeter of Russia. A geo-political tool to enable a global energy transformation or a modern weapon to settle disputes, natural gas has truly evolved.

Cleaner to burn but messy to legislate, natural gas from shale holds great promise for the US and the world. This relatively clean energy source has miraculously become the ideal bridge-fuel that society desperately needs to wean itself off its addiction to dirty coal and oil. Already there are positive signs that society is moving in the right direction. For example, utility companies no longer build new coal-fired power plants to produce electricity. Also, transcontinental transportation fleets are converting their trucks to natural gas. These and many more initiatives to replace conventional fuels have helped to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the US to levels not seen since 1995.

The rapid expansion of wells drilled since 2006 has given engineers plenty of valuable field data to improve upon yields and safety standards. From these field trials, amazing, breakthrough technologies have emerged. However, none of these achievements could have happened without the perfect storm scenario that came together in the last few years; …where favorable property rights laws in the US made it easier to select drilling sights, …where the availability of exceptional talent in the oil industry globally was ready and able and …where the consistently high market prices for oil (above $100) was sufficient to ‘fuel’ the funding needed to keep the engines of this perfect storm humming along.

Now into its eighth year, the US natural gas bonanza is no longer a nascent business for wild cat investors. Its unprecedented success has placed it front and center on the global stage. Presently at the helm, is the US who practically overnight, has gone from being a net importer that was often subjected to the whims of OPEC, to a net exporter. For a long time, Americans have always been taught to loathe their dependence on oil-rich countries. They often accused these oligarchs of using US oil payments to wage war against the same US freedom-fighting armies that protect their regions. With this recent change of the guards, however, Americans and their leaders are finding themselves in uncharted territory. The improved situation favors the US significantly but also leaves its leaders facing a tough dilemma.

To Prohibit or To Allow Exports – a tough dilemma
While the US can boast having the cheapest natural gas on the planet and the best technology to extract it, elected leaders in Congress must deal with two opposing issues: either to prohibit the export of US natural gas so US manufacturers can create more American jobs or to allow exports to threatened US allies whose economies are constantly challenged by volatile energy prices. Already, the US’s offer to export natural gas to the Ukraine in response to Putin’s invasion of Crimea has prompted a strong reaction between both sides. Seen in this manner, one might contemplate the following question:

Could natural gas become the US enabler for global sustainable economic growth and world peace? …and if so, should it be implemented as a tool or a weapon?

There are three key benefits the US could gain from exporting its natural gas. First, the US could stabilize energy prices globally for a long time. Stable energy prices would help remove a fundamental uncertainty that concerns investors. Keeping investors happy is important since they are instrumental in relieving government coffers of additional financial burdens. A second benefit focuses on building global awareness on climate change. Just as the US has done to limit the use of their coal-fired power plants, other countries could be further encouraged to adopt similar environmentally friendly laws and best practices. Finally, for countries seeking a free trade agreement with the US, natural gas exports could earn valuable trade concessions that could lead to integrated capacity-building among government institutions, a critical component toward establishing sustainable democracies worldwide.

These lofty expectations may be too high for even the US, considering that every new encounter will introduce more complexities and unknowns. If left unchecked, however, this dominating role could awaken the Bush-era American arrogance that caused much damage among US allies in the last decade. We can only hope that US elected officials will recognize this once in a millennium opportunity and use natural gas as a tool rather than a weapon to steer the world toward a sustainable energy transformation strategy that follows a common set of internationally vetted guidelines and best practices.

To its credit, the US is quite adept at writing policies based on extensive research that can serve as effective connectors between funding sources and companies. Leaders would do well to study the success of these domestic policies and use their findings as a guide for dealing with international conflicts. One good example, I came across, is an institution called NREL (National Renewable Energy Laboratory).

NREL (National Renewable Energy Laboratory)
At a recent MIT Energy Conference in February panelists from NREL described what they do for the solar and wind energy. For these two industries, NREL devises standardized contracts (i.e. between developers and investors), catalogs best practices, creates a massive dataset for investors called SPA  and even generates a mocked up filing for rating agencies. Their work is available to anyone over the web.  No one is forced to adopt their recommendations but since they work so closely with industry, most do. US government policymakers use their data to design tax subsidy programs and special financial mechanisms (i.e. MLPs – Master Limited Partnerships and REITs – Real Estate Investment Trusts) to attract private sector investors. Since the process is allowed to work under free market conditions, successful outcomes are only a matter of time. Players who are allowed to adapt together naturally align their better interests on their own terms.

One of NREL’s key objectives is to help these two young industries adopt to a structured and comprehensive outline that can fit easily into the most current legal, financial, and policymaking world that currently govern US multinationals. The process allows for give and take from all sides, which leaves some wiggle room for new ideas and progress. This overlay is the ledge where young creative and nimble companies can push the envelope for new ideas and pathways. At the conference, we got a glimpse of what awaits NRELs future considerations.

There is Energi, a risk management company based in Massachusetts that sells insurance on the expected realized energy savings for a renewable project. In Energi’s world, if a project fails to meet an agreed benchmark of savings after an allotted time, investors are made whole according to their insurance policy. Essentially Energi found a way to treat money saved as money earned. Other companies that profit from realized savings include Opower, which gets paid by a home resident’s utility company for kilowatts of energy saved and First Fuel, which uses big data and data analytics to help office building developers lower their energy bills. On the pure concept play there is TeraCool, a young startup currently soliciting investors to build a first-of-its-kind data center at a Singapore LNG port. The data center would be air cooled from the flow of unloaded liquid natural gas. The company does not generate any revenue for its clients but instead seeks to be paid from the estimated annual energy savings it claims to generate to the tune of $70 million dollars.

As seen with the example from NREL, the US is quite capable of managing multi-sector projects to achieve game-changing results.  However, it remains to be seen if US leaders will be equally successful managing multi-country agendas with the same level of confidence. Obama and Congress will soon find out that natural gas may be the catalyst of choice, but it is still highly flammable.

© 2014 Tom Kadala

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