The fertilizer needed to grow hay on J2 Cattle Farm, his 150-acre operation in Trinity, N.C., costs three times what it did last year, largely because the methane in natural gas is a central ingredient. The chemicals that keep weeds from destroying Johnson’s hay? Also made from natural gas, and now exorbitantly expensive.
“If this were my primary income, there is no way I could make it,” the 44-year-old electrical engineer said. “I can’t even break even.”
As world leaders scramble to contain the fallout of the Kremlin’s decision to cut off gas supplies to Poland and Bulgaria, a move that sent gas prices soaring in Europe, some large consumers of natural gas say a surge in U.S. exports will contribute to higher prices domestically. Already, Russia’s invasion has moved America to send abroad every molecule of natural gas that can be shipped, accounting for about 20 percent of the U.S. supply. The industry plans to nearly double exports in the future.
A broad coalition including the GOP’s most fervent drilling enthusiasts, Biden White House energy advisers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce contends there will be plenty of gas to go around. A growth in shipments overseas, they say, would drive more gas production at home and help avoid the price shocks consumers are now confronting, with U.S. homeowners seeing their gas bills up more than 25 percent over last year.
Yet some big fertilizer manufacturing operations, chemical plants and consumer groups are wary of such assurances.
“You can’t just open the floodgates and keep exporting more gas without a safety net for the U.S. consumer,” said Paul Cicio, president of the Industrial Energy Consumers of America, a trade group representing thousands of manufacturers of fertilizers, chemicals and other products heavily reliant on natural gas. “But that is what is going on.”
The gas industry’s expansion plans would lock in contracts for American exports for decades, with most of the fuel eventually going to China and elsewhere in Asia. At a time when the United States is gripped by inflation, driven in no small part by energy shortages at home and abroad, the conflicting projections of how the long-range plans to sell more than a third of American gas to overseas customers would affect U.S. consumers are scrambling alliances in Washington and blurring ideological lines.
The heavy manufacturing businesses Cicio represents suddenly find themselves aligned with climate hawks who want to curb exports that threaten to prolong reliance on fossil fuels. Also on their side are left-leaning consumer groups like Public Citizen, which for years has lobbied against exports of natural gas, warning of the kind of price spikes low-income consumers are struggling with now.
“In terms of climate policy, we could not be further apart, but we are right next to them in how we look at what is happening with our nation’s gas infrastructure,” said Clark Williams-Derry, an analyst at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, a liberal think tank echoing Cicio’s warnings about gas costs.
During the pandemic, demand for natural gas was flat from all the usual places: industry, power plants, and home and business furnaces and stoves, according to the figures from the Energy Information Agency. The notable exception was exports. As they rapidly expanded, prices kept going up.
“What we need to worry about now is keeping this from getting worse,” Williams-Derry said. “We are deep in a hole. We need to stop pretending that approving new liquefied natural gas export terminals has no effect on us consumers.”
Energy industry and Biden administration officials take issue with that framing. They say it ignores all manner of factors keeping natural gas prices inflated, including a substantial cutback in drilling in recent years and efforts to isolate Russia. A robust export market, their argument goes, would lead to more natural gas infrastructure getting built, boosting supply not just for export but also for the domestic market.
“There is an ability to provide even more gas domestically,” said Marty Durbin, who heads the Global Energy Institute at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “The resource here is so vast that if we have proper infrastructure, we would be able to produce even more.”
Economists and gas industry experts have wildly varying views on who is right. Projecting the direction of fuel prices years out is a gamble. The biggest exporter of North American natural gas to Europe right now, Cheniere Energy, had initially bet that the United States would not be exporting much of the gas at all, but importing it. The Sabine Pass facility that it built in Louisiana to handle those imports nearly drove the company into bankruptcy when the United States was suddenly swimming in domestic natural gas during the shale boom. The facility has since been converted to be a hub of Cheniere’s now-booming export business.
The argument that more exports would drive down costs is echoing through the halls of Congress, where Republicans are pressuring the Biden administration to ease environmental restrictions on pipeline construction and other infrastructure they say are constraining the nation’s natural gas supply. Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, who is eager to see energy firms expand their exports from his state’s Gulf Coast, has argued repeatedly that they would lower energy prices for Americans. More exports are a pillar of a plan he and 18 other GOP senators are promoting to lower the price of fertilizer.
The Industrial Energy Consumers has a very different plan: They want guardrails that would curb exports at moments when American inventories of natural gas drop steeply. GOP lawmakers, predictably, oppose burdening the energy industry with such restrictions. But the Republican reasoning also resonates with some on the left.
Imposing the kind of guardrails demanded by the industrial energy consumers “would mean we couldn’t be a reliable supplier,” said Samantha Gross, a fellow specializing in climate and energy at the Brookings Institution, the liberal think tank. While many major environmental groups would rather phase out the use of natural gas altogether, Gross argues that shipping the fuel abroad helps provide energy security to allies and could ultimately benefit the climate by giving China and India an affordable alternative to coal.
“It’s easy to say, ‘If we export more, prices will go up,’ ” Gross said. “All other things being equal, sure. But all other things won’t remain equal.”
Yet others on the left are frustrated to see the Biden administration so eagerly pivoting toward the industry’s position. A group of 10 senators from New England and the Midwest warned in a February letter to Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm that the export enthusiasm hurts consumers struggling with soaring home heating bills.
“This is nothing but economics,” said one of the co-authors, Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), in floor debate last month. He laid out how the United States went from exporting no natural gas at all seven years ago to a fifth of its supply today.
“With the plants that have been approved, it is going to go up to 25, 30 or 35 percent,” King said. “That is going to impact prices here.”
Even within the gas industry, the message is not always consistent. Public utilities aligned with large multination energy companies investing big in exporting abroad, like Sempra subsidiary Southern California Gas, have raised no doubts about its impact on consumer prices at home. Yet as prices began to rise before war broke out in Europe, Chicago utility Peoples Gas made a presentation to the city highlighting increased exports of liquefied natural gas as one of the “longer term challenges for natural gas pricing.”
Back in the farming community, alliances are also unpredictable. One activist who fertilizer manufacturers and consumer advocates fighting the gas exports might have expected to join their coalition isn’t buying into the talking points.
Fourth-generation cattle and grain farmer Darvin Bentlage of Barton County, Mo., has long warned that multinational corporations are destroying local agriculture, including in a piece he co-authored for the Nation magazine last year. But he is skeptical of fertilizer company claims that a reason independent farmers like he and Jackie Johnson may struggle to afford the product into the future is because natural gas executives are chasing profits abroad.
Bentlage blames the fertilizer industry’s own sprint to boost its bottom line amid industry consolidation that has made the product less competitive.
“Their profit margins are jumping,” Bentlage said. “It’s always a good excuse to blame it on someone else. … It’s smoke and mirrors.”
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