The only thing holding back the country’s tremendous opportunity in shale gas is permitting — for petrochemical facilities, liquefied natural gas (LNG) export projects and drilling in some states — according to ExxonMobil Chemical’s President Stephen D. Pryor.

Pryor was a keynote luncheon speaker Wednesday at the Shale Insight 2013 conference in Philadelphia. Most of the demand for natural gas is outside the United States, which presents a huge opportunity for gas exports and the petrochemicals market, he told the audience.

“For example, permits to develop shale resources are on hold in five states amid an endless debate over the safety of hydraulic fracturing,” citing Maryland, New York, New Jersey, North Carolina and Vermont.

In the past 50 years, however, the U.S. oil and gas industry “has fractured more than one million wells,” Pryor claimed. “As ExxonMobil Chairman Rex Tillerson said recently, if hydraulic fracturing were a new drug treatment undergoing clinical trial, it would have been cleared decades ago.”

Another “endless debate” revolves around LNG permitting to allow global exports by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). There are about 20 proposals on the table.

“While we don’t know how many of these projects ultimately will prove viable, we need to let the competitive market determine which ones get built and which don’t,” he said. “The DOE should adhere to its tradition of embracing free trade and avoid imposing artificial limits on U.S. LNG exports.”

Permit approval times, said Pryor, “are the leading indicator of how quickly our nation is capturing the benefits of shale energy. Delays could add billions to project costs, restrain job creation and erode America’s new competitive advantage. As a nation eager for economic growth, the United States should be monitoring these approval times the same way it monitors other key economic indicators…”

Limiting LNG exports “would have a chilling effect on trade and restrict the ability of U.S. gas producers to reach global markets,” he said. “It’s protectionism, pure and simple. It flies in the face of fairness, open markets and free trade. It also ignores the humanitarian and environmental imperative that compels us to provide the cleaner-burning energy critical to human progress and economic development around the world.”

For years the United States was on the import side of the LNG equation, but shale gas is turning that equation around. Energy Information Administration data and NGI‘s Shale Daily calculations show that U.S. net imports of natural gas peaked in 2007 at 3,785 Bcf. In 2012, that number had been reduced by more than half to 1,518 Bcf (see chart).

The energy industry is attempting to turn the shale gas story into a positive, particularly in some parts of the country where protesters claim that fracturing should be banned.

“But the narrative can’t stop at the wellhead,” Pryor said. “You can’t just tell the wellhead issues around fracturing. You have to tell the whole story.”

America’s free market system should allow gas exports to compete and help to build a stronger domestic petrochemical industry, Stephen Pryor told an audience of producers and operators said at the Shale Insight 2013 conference in Philadelphia.

“The total value of shipments from U.S. chemical manufacturers hit an all-time high during the past two years,” he said. “Just five years ago, the U.S. was losing ground in the export market. In fact, the country was on the verge of becoming a net importer of chemicals. But today, chemicals are once again America’s single biggest export — larger than agriculture, automobiles and aerospace.

“And this is just the beginning. Global demand for chemicals is expected to rise by 50% over the next decade…While history tells us that regional cost differences fluctuate over time with energy prices, the United States is back in the game. Exports can be the springboard for a new era of American chemical growth.”

ExxonMobil Corp., the largest natural gas producer in the United States, has cut back its gas output in the onshore and is working on oil targets today. However, the chemicals and LNG units, which Pryor helms, are “moving quickly to seize this opportunity.” Last year ExxonMobil launched plans for a multi-billion dollar expansion at its Baytown, TX, facility, which already is the largest integrated refining and chemical complex in the country. It also is a partner with Qatar Petroleum in one of the planned LNG export projects in Texas.

“Industry-wide, some 125 new chemical projects have been announced in the United States,” said Pryor during his luncheon keynote. “The American Chemistry Council estimates these projects to be worth as much as $84 billion. This is good news for U.S. natural gas producers because petrochemical investments create demand for ethane and other natural gas liquids.

“The bad news is that, today, U.S. chemical plants are already running at full capacity and therefore cannot absorb the growing surplus of ethane from natural gas. As a result, ethane, in many cases, is being left in the gas stream rather than being extracted and upgraded to chemicals.”

That “bad news” makes it critical for U.S. petrochemical investments to be allowed to expand quickly, he said. “Failure to do so will constrain investment in both natural gas production and infrastructure, thereby limiting economic growth and job creation.”

That same logic applies to proposed LNG exports.

“Just as with petrochemicals, if U.S. LNG capacity is allowed to lag it will constrain investment in natural gas development — and limit U.S. economic growth and job creation,” Pryor said. Creating new jobs “won’t require government programs, subsidies or mandates. What it will require are policies that clear the path for private-sector investment. This path needs to be very, very wide — a super highway.

“The United States needs tens of billions of dollars of investments — not just in production, but in the infrastructure and processing facilities that can enable American-made gas and gas liquids to reach markets here and around the world. It needs pipelines and chemical plants and LNG export terminals.”

Given all that the U.S. bounty can provide, Pryor said it was time for the country to unite behind shale gas, “the same way other countries do with their energy industries and the same way this country did with automobiles, the Internet or any other revolutionary American innovation.”