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Gas Supply Growth, Price Stability Affirmed to NARUC

Natural gas growth potential and prospects for continued modest prices were talked up to a group of state regulatory commissioners meeting in Los Angeles Monday, following keynote addresses earlier in the day touting gas and all of its traditional and renewable competitors.

The gas committee of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) heard from experts from the American Gas Association (AGA) and Colorado-based Bentek Energy LLC on the credibility of the current bullish North American gas reserve estimates. The NARUC committee received a clear-cut reaffirmation of the size and scope of the current gas boom.

General session speakers included Peabody Energy Corp. CEO Gregory Boyce touting coal; Aubrey McClendon, CEO of Chesapeake Energy Corp., offering his case for gas; and speakers from the nuclear, wind and solar sectors. The only thing they came close to agreeing on is that all will have to play a role in the changing worldwide energy mix.

AGA's Christopher McGill and Bentek CEO Porter Bennett focused more narrowly on gas reserves mostly in talking to the NARUC members who serve on the association's committee that is tracking current gas industry issues, including supply/demand, pipeline safety and price concerns.

Noting that gas producers have been "relatively conservative" in their reserve estimates, McGill said he thinks that allegations of the industry making bogus or questionable projections for future gas supplies are simply not true. "They have actually been relatively conservative in how they book these supplies they are trying to develop."

McGill made his remarks while answering a question about what the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has been trying to do in changing its definitions of reserves with the advent of the huge new shale gas plays.

Bennett talked about still-unfolding developments in the natural gas boom in terms of the hydraulic fracturing (fracking) technology that is underpinning it, the side effect on domestic onshore oil development and the dynamics all of this will have on energy demand.

"We have already redefined peak production, and we are continuing to do so," said Bennett, citing the statistic that since August last year the nation has been steadily exceeding (by more than 120 days) all-time record peak production of natural gas set in 1971. "And in more than 50 days we have exceeded the 1971 record levels by as much as 2 Bcf/d."

As an aside, Bennett said production has fallen in the past two weeks, but he characterized that as normal for this time of year when gathering systems and other pipeline upgrade and maintenance work is in full swing.

Bennett made a number of bullish observations about oil and gas supplies, but he added some caveats. On price, he said Bentek estimates now are for the average cost to stay under $5/MMBtu through 2017. Other areas he touched on covered production costs, oil's role and the fact that in the shale plays production growth is eclipsing demand.

While technology and other factors have allowed production per well or per rig to increase markedly, and costs of production to stay relatively low, the need for increased infrastructure, the advent of liquids and a shortage of fracking crews to keep up with the frantic expansion have all begun to drive up some of the upfront costs, Bennett said.

"You can't really think about breakeven costs in the same way you did about conventional wells." A lot of the activity now is associated with oil and liquids, which are drawing much higher prices than the gas, Bennett said. Up to 1 Bcf/d of added gas supplies projected between now and 2015 is directly tied to oil and liquid development, what Bennett called "good, old-fashioned associated gas and liquids."

Bennett said this was "one of the most important dynamics to recognize about the gas business right now. Prices for gas for producers right now are irrelevant; they are not what is driving production."

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