EC Could We Be Hitting Natural Gas Limits Already?

Many countries have assumed that natural gas imports will be available for balancing electricity produced by intermittent wind and solar, whenever they are needed. The high natural gas import prices recently being encountered in Europe, and especially in the UK, appear to be an indication of an underlying problem. Could the world already be hitting natural gas limits?

One reason few people expect a problem with natural gas is because of the immense quantities reported as proven reserves. For all countries combined, these reserves at December 31, 2020 were equal to 48.8 times world natural gas production in 2020. Thus, in theory, the world could continue to produce natural gas at the current rate for almost 50 years, without even trying to to find more natural gas resources.

Ratios of natural gas reserves to production vary greatly by country, giving a hint that the indications may be unreliable. High reserves make an exporting country appear to be dependable for many years in the future, whether or not this is true.

Figure 1. Ratio of natural gas reserves at December 31, 2020, to natural gas production for the year 2020, based on trade data of BP’s 2021 Statistical Review of World Energy. Russia+ is the Commonwealth of Independent States. It includes Russia and the countries to the south of Russia that were included in the former Soviet Union.

As I see the issue, these reserves are unlikely to be produced unless world oil prices rise to a level close to double what they are today and stay at such a high level for several years. I say this because the health of the oil and gas industries are closely intertwined. Of the two, oil has historically been the major profit-maker, enabling adequate funds for reinvestment. Prices have been too low for oil producers for about eight years now, cutting back on investment in new fields and export capability. This low-price issue is what seems to be leading to limits to the natural gas supply, as well as a limit to the oil supply.

Figure 2. Inflation adjusted oil prices based on EIA monthly average Brent oil prices, adjusted by the CPI Urban. The chart shows price data through October 2020. The Brent oil price at September 24, 2021 is about $74 per barrel, which is still very low relative to what oil companies require to make adequate reinvestment.

In this post, I will try to explain some of the issues involved. In some ways, a dire situation already seems to be developing.

[1] Taking a superficial world view, natural gas seems to be doing fairly well. It is only when a person starts analyzing some of the pieces that problems start to become clear.

Figure 3. World oil, coal and natural gas supply based on data of BP’s 2021 Statistical Review of World Energy.

Figure 3 shows that natural gas supply has been rising, year after year. There was a brief dip in 2009, at the time of the Great Recession, and a slightly larger dip in 2020, related to COVID-19 restrictions. Overall, production has been growing at a steady rate. Compared to oil and coal, the recent growth pattern of natural gas has been more stable.

The quantity of exports of natural gas tends to be much more variable. Figure 4 compares inter-regional trade for coal and natural gas. Here, I have ignored local trade and only considered trade among fairly large blocks of countries, such as North America, Europe and Russia combined with its close affiliates.

Figure 4. Total inter-regional trade among fairly large groupings of countries (such as Europe and North America) based on trade data provided by BP’s 2021 Statistical Review of World Energy.

If a person looks closely at the growth of natural gas imports in Figure 4, it becomes clear that growth in natural gas is a feast or famine proposition, given to upward spurts, dips and flat periods. It is my understanding that in the early years, natural gas was typically traded under long-term contracts, on a “take or pay” basis. The price was often tied to the oil price. This generous pricing structure allowed natural gas exports to grow rapidly in the 2000 to 2008 period. The Great Recession cut back the need for natural gas imports and also led to downward pressure on the pricing of exports.

After the Great Recession, natural gas import prices tended to fall below oil prices (Figure 5) except in Japan, where stability of supply is very important. Another change was that an increasing share of exported natural gas was sold in the “spot” market. These prices fluctuate depending on changes in supply and demand, making them much more variable.

Figure 5. Comparison of annual average natural gas prices with corresponding Brent oil price, based on information from BP’s 2021 Statistical Review of World Energy. Natural gas prices per million Btus converted to barrel of oil equivalent prices by multiplying by 6.0.
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Susan Miller 2 weeks ago Member's comment

Excellent as always, Gail.