Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Musings: Imagining The Future for The Natural Gas Industry

A week ago Monday, the December natural gas futures contract traded on the CME exchange closed out its existence at $3.36 per thousand cubic feet of gas (Mcf), down $0.18 from the closing price of $3.54/Mcf posted the previous trading day, which happened to be the Friday after Thanksgiving and a notoriously light trading day. Natural gas prices had been buoyed in the period immediately before Thanksgiving by expectations that colder than normal weather over large parts of the gas consuming areas of the country would hike demand.

Futures prices were higher despite large and growing natural gas storage volumes. On that last trading day, cold weather prospects had shifted in favor of expectations for warmer than anticipated temperatures and thus depressed gas demand. The price drop, one of the largest daily corrections in a long time, brought further pain to industry participants. But as one private equity investor very active in the upstream oil and gas business put it, "It's got to change!" Yes, it will. The problem is that it could get worse!

The price drop, one of the largest daily corrections in a long time, brought further pain to industry participants

We've been spending considerable time wrestling with trying to define the natural gas industry's outlook as it is very important for this country's economy and for those people who are actively engaged in the business. Could it get worse? Can it get better? Current industry conditions reflect a certain Jekyll and Hyde quality, activity is up and growing but the price for the product is low and falling. What would it take for natural gas prices to recover? Would those actions help or hurt future industry activity?

Beyond those immediate concerns, we are wrestling with what the next phase for the industry might look like? How will the industry change as it transitions from its current state to whatever that next phase is? Will natural gas play an even greater role in our nation's power generation business? Can natural gas power a meaningful segment of our future car and truck fleet? Will the U.S. remain a natural gas importer or become a significant gas exporter?

These and many other questions have been filling our head and dominating our discussions with people in the business. To try to make sense of what is happening now, but more importantly what might happen in the future, we felt we needed to step back and take a very high level perspective of the business and current trends. It meant we needed to get away from the trees that restrict our view of the forest. (It will take several articles to examine these issues and attempt to define how the future might unfold.)

So far this year, it becomes clear we have experienced two distinctly different outlooks for the industry.

When we look at a chart of the price of the near month natural gas futures contract (Exhibit 1) so far this year, it becomes clear we have experienced two distinctly different outlooks for the industry. One was predicated on optimism about a growing economic recovery coupled with anticipation for falling natural gas production. The other view was marked by a weak economy with a potential for it getting worse given global economic and credit market uncertainties, coupled with growing frustration over continuing production growth despite weak natural gas prices.......Read the entire "Musings From The Oil Patch" article


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