Widespread development of natural gas export capability in the United States could be a huge boost to the U.S. economy, to natural gas infrastructure companies and to liquefied natural gas (LNG) import facilities that now are stymied by a disjointed global market for gas that currently has U.S. prices lagging below those in the rest of the world, according to Darcel Hulse, Sempra Energy’s outgoing CEO for LNG operations.

Hulse, who retires at the end of this month, talked last week with NGI about where the LNG sector in the United States now sits and where it might go with the rising number of proposals to develop LNG export facilities in North America (see related story).

With more than 40 years experience in the industry, Hulse’s assessment is that exports are a way for the U.S. economy and national interests to be bolstered at the same time more value is obtained for the newly burgeoning national resources — shale gas, liquids and oil. He is particularly bullish about the development of brownfield gas liquefaction facilities at existing LNG terminals, of which Sempra Energy has two (Cameron in Louisiana and Energia Costa Azul in North Baja California, Mexico).

“When you have a brownfield in a key location, you have an economic advantage and you have taken a good portion of the risk out of the project,” said Hulse, adding that he thinks Sempra is in a good position to be successful regardless of what the global market eventually does. He considers being on the Gulf of Mexico (GOM) and along the West Coast of Mexico as ideal export locations with marine docking facilities and storage tanks already in place.

“You’ve already constructed a lot of the facilities that take a lot of manpower during construction, so for that part of the project the risk has been removed. On the liquefaction side, you have much larger components, you order them in advance, you know the prices of the equipment, you install them and then in effect hook them up, so your man-hours to the total cost are much lower than if you were still building tanks and marine facilities.”

At the brownfield sites exporters are able to receive pipeline-quality gas that has already been treated and stripped of its liquids, he noted.

Sempra’s strategy for LNG development has been turned upside down in recent years, Hulse acknowledged. Like other developers, Sempra’s plan was originally based on North American gas reserves continuing to dwindle and the need for imports to grow. Shale gas has changed all that.

“Shale formations and the technology to get at the gas changed the picture dramatically,” Hulse said. “So now we see the three major [LNG] markets globally — Europe, Asia and the U.S. — just really disconnected in terms of prices.” He called it a “unique market situation” unlike any other major commodity in the world currently.

Hulse traces the start of the wide disparity in gas prices between the United States and elsewhere to the first quarter of 2010. “Since then it has gotten really wide, so the question is how will that market be moving forward? Will it remain disconnected, or will it eventually come together again? That is anybody’s guess.”

©Copyright 2011Intelligence Press Inc. All rights reserved. The preceding news reportmay not be republished or redistributed, in whole or in part, in anyform, without prior written consent of Intelligence Press, Inc.