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Power Generation, Exports Key to 'Delicate' U.S. NatGas Supply-Demand Balance

If an ever-more delicate supply-demand balance is going to be maintained in U.S. natural gas markets, demand needs to grow in both the power generation and the export sectors, a panel of industry analysts said Monday at the LDC Mid-Continent Gas Forum in Chicago.

A rough consensus among the four panelists showed supply slightly outstripping demand in the coming winter heating season.

Forecasting that gas prices will stay under $4.00 through 2020, Rick Allen, director of oil and gas consulting services at Bentek Energy, emphasized the nation's robust gas production needs more demand, and "it's coming" in the form of higher volumes for electric generation, but that is not enough without exports. For production growth, "the Northeast is the big story," Allen said, adding that 2.2 Bcf/d has been added from the Utica and Marcellus plays since October.

"Supply is not the problem," Allen said, comparing the five-year period 2009-2014 in which total Lower 48 demand grew by 11 Bcf/d but production grew even more at 13.6 Bcf/d.

Underscoring Allen's contention that exports are the key to soaking up the oversupply of U.S. natural gas, Steve Piper, associate director of energy fundamentals at SNL Energy, said that in examining regional power grids he found peak demand for power is down and reserve margins are increasing, which is "not a good sign" for gas-fired generation demand growth. "Over time, we actually see higher reserve margins for PJM," Piper said.

Indicative of the future demand uncertainty and continuing oversupply, Tony Scott, managing director at BTU Analytics, said there is a large amount of private equity capital "sitting on the sidelines" in the natural gas sector. He estimates that there is more than $100 billion waiting to come into the sector. The money that is coming in is at much higher costs, according to Scott.

"It is requiring producers to sell assets today at really bargain prices, and on the international side, one of our big concerns is the global energy markets, in terms of where the growth is going to come from? We already see spreads tightening for LNG [liquefied natural gas] projects in Australia," Scott said. "Ultimately, that puts more pressure on producers in North America."

Scott sees these global developments setting up U.S. gas production for "a much slower pace going forward."

Jack Weixel, vice president for analysis at PointLogic Energy and, like Scott, a former Bentek analyst, summarized his fellow panelists' outlook on supply-demand as "a delicate balance." Weixel said the presentations showed that compared to a few years ago, "we're living in a much more robust demand market" with additional electric generation and Mexican exports adding up to an increase of 3.3 Bcf/d, compared to 2012.

For the future, "there is no real reason for demand to dip," Weixel said. "There are no reasons for the exports to decline and gas prices are real suitable for power generation.Overall, the market this winter could be about 600 MMcf/d long this winter,” assuming a projected increase in supply of 1.8 Bcf/d with demand increasing less at 1.2 Bcf/d.

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