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2013 North American Energy: Focus on Shale, States, Exports

Rapid-fire events in the energy sector upheaval preclude development of a comprehensive national energy policy right now, according to an energy expert with Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP.

"There are no scenarios that I see where anything is going to stop [the United States] from reaping the benefits of unconventional energy resources," a Houston-based Akin Gump energy attorney said.

Energy policy and market developments increasingly will be viewed in the context of North American self-sufficiency in 2013, but the action will remain centered on a combination of shale development, state energy policies and a continuing debate surrounding U.S. energy exports, according to some energy specialists at the Houston law firm.

"The global energy picture for next year remains complex, complicating prospects for a comprehensive national energy strategy," according to a spokesperson for Akin Gump, whose partners in its energy practice offered a 2013 outlook last month.

Predicting "no dramatic shifts" in energy policy, Akin Gump's public law and policy specialist Henry Terhune thinks that states -- not the federal government -- will drive most energy policy, although the renewable tax credit extensions and decision on the northern portion of the Keystone XL oil pipeline out of Canada will be focused on the Obama administration.

"There is a lot of attention being paid to the United States and North America overall becoming energy self-sufficient," said Steve Davis, Akin Gump's energy and global transactions specialist, who offered his insights in an interview with NGI.

"Some people like to talk about the United States becoming energy independent, but other people prefer to talk about North America being energy self-sufficient," Davis said. "Given all the infrastructure needs we have in the country, it seems to be pretty unlikely that we are going to be energy independent to the point where we are not importing oil at all."

What Davis thinks are substantial "infrastructure constraints" would keep the United States from true energy independence even if there was a strong public policy push for it to happen, he said.

"There is a tremendous amount of infrastructure being built, and more to come,"said Davis, responding to specific questions about how and whether a major North American market will develop. "It largely attributable to the fact that we now have the production of both oil and natural gas in areas that have not traditionally been producers. So the infrastructure needs are being pursued very actively."

With or without a drive for the self-sufficiency, Davis thinks there is an "economic imperative" to try to move the oil and gas to parts of the country where it can be absorbed. "That sort of goes for the Bakken Shale, the Marcellus, and even the Eagle Ford," he said.

A lot of the infrastructure is tied to the natural gas liquids (NGL) sector, which is projected to boom as the chemicals and the petrochemical industries globally put more focus on North America, according to industry sources that go well beyond the Houston-based energy observers. Ethane demand is expected to grow substantially.

"Just the chemical sector alone is driving tremendous infrastructure build-out," said Davis, who added that this sector will be the source of stepped up exports from the United States, even if there never is an opening up of U.S. liquefied natural gas (LNG) or ethane exports in significant quantities. "We are going to see more export of U.S. petrochemical products [polyethylene, and other products all made possible by the development of so much unconventional gas]."

How bullish should North American energy producers be about the prospects for LNG exports?

Noting the earliest the exports would begin would be 2017-18, Davis is not sure it is a slam dunk they will begin that soon. Besides the serious concerns being raised by the manufacturing and chemical sectors, among others, because of the potential impact on today's low gas prices, the projects themselves will take a long time to develop and build.

"I think it is too early to determine what will happen" after the public comment period ends in February regarding the U.S. Department of Energy's third-party assessment of LNG exports, Davis said. "I would be quite surprised if there were no additional export licenses issued, but on the other hand, I would be just as surprised if unlimited numbers were issued."

He thinks there will be safeguards and contingencies placed to assure there are adequate supplies of natural gas for economic growth in the United States, and then some incremental amount allowed for exports.

Is a national energy policy likely to emerge next year or soon thereafter?

Given the partisan nature of Congress these days, the large amount of changes in the energy sector and other global market dynamics, it is debatable whether the nation needs a comprehensive national policy right now, Davis said.

"The fact that we have very significant economic issues to face [as a nation] has to have an impact along with the degree of change going on with unconventional energy resources," he said. "That has to have an impact on the level of support that the federal government provides to renewable resource development.

"There seems to be some sort of bipartisan support for extending the [renewable] tax credits, but how long and to what extent is still unknown. I just think there is so much going on that it is unlikely that a national energy policy will be developed, and ultimately, I am not sure we need one at this point."

Davis thinks for now the United States has been "bailed out" by the extensive shale gas and oil discoveries, or more broadly "unconventional" resources. He thinks there are unlimited potential opportunities that this presents to the U.S. economy.

Aside from some environmental opposition, Davis thinks there is "no chance" that the U.S. economy is not going to reap big benefits from shale.

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