The United States has abundant natural gas reserves. That has dramatically cut heating costs for American homeowners and energy costs for businesses, while reducing U.S. carbon dioxide emissions by double digits in a decade.
Energy companies sell some of the natural gas overseas, where it similarly benefits consumers and the environment. That also helps firm up natural gas prices in the U.S.
Since a pipeline across the ocean isn’t possible, natural gas has to be compressed until it becomes a liquid and loaded aboard special tankers for export. The U.S. is the world’s third largest exporter of liquefied natural gas, or LNG, in a market that shipped 350 million tons of it last year.
Delaware River Partners is a unit of New Fortress Energy, a global energy company working on the transition to clean energy. It wants to convert natural gas from Pennsylvania’s northeast Marcellus Shale fields into LNG and ship it from a South Jersey port on the Delaware River.
That would benefit both states and would have to be done in compliance with numerous state and federal regulations. Last week the Delaware River Basin Commission affirmed its approval for the DRP plan, after giving environmental opponents one more hearing of their arguments against it.
The plan calls for two docks to be built on the river in Gibbstown, Gloucester County, one shipping LNG and the other for exporting a range of goods.
The company said it has gotten the 17 state and federal approvals needed for the first dock, and the other eight permits for the second. In December, the federal government granted its first permit for rail shipment of LNG, from a town north of Scranton, Pa., to the Gibbstown terminal.
Now that the terminal is cleared to be built, it faces what may be a greater challenge — global demand for LNG that weakened during DRP’s years of planning and permitting.
In the fall of 2018, a million BTUs of liquefied natural gas was selling for $12. By last October, it had dropped to about $7 in Asian markets. Now, thanks to the pandemic and the economic effects of government responses to it, LNG delivered to Asia next month is only worth $2 per million BTUs. Exporters need $5.50 to break even. Even if natural gas prices rise as forecast next year, the price is likely to be well short of that break-even figure.
Perhaps New Fortress Energy will go ahead with the LNG terminal in South Jersey, based on what is likely strong long-term demand.
But energy markets are known for their extreme volatility and unpredictability.
The last time South Jersey was focused on an LNG terminal in 2011, it was proposed for an ocean location off Asbury Park — and would have imported natural gas from other countries for U.S. consumption.
The governor at the time, Chris Christie, vetoed the project as incompatible with the state’s tourism and fishing industries.
The revolution in shale gas extraction reversed the market, making the U.S. a world leader in natural gas and oil production.
The only thing certain about energy in the years ahead is that America and the world will need a lot of it at costs that are affordable.