The U.S. natural gas pipeline sector is entering a challenging period for recontracting a major chunk of its capacity. The numerous pipeline systems built during the early years of the Shale Era’s midstream boom were anchored by 10-year, firm shipper contracts, mostly with producers, making them so-called “supply-push” pipelines. Many of those initial contract periods have begun to roll off, exposing pipelines to producer-shippers’ renewal decisions based on current fundamentals. Shippers typically expect substantially lower rates for a renewal contract, because much of the pipeline has been paid off through depreciation. But there’s another issue that is becoming more important: shipper recontracting may not happen for market reasons. For pipeline owners, this is happening at the worst possible time. The market is in turmoil and facing ongoing uncertainty. Gas production is down, demand from LNG export facilities is in flux, and regional supply-demand dynamics are shifting. As if that weren’t enough, new, large-diameter pipelines out of the Permian now nearing completion will reshuffle gas flows around the country. And other transportation corridors that not long ago were bursting at the seams and feverishly expanding to ease constraints are now at risk of being underutilized. Today, we discuss the factors that together may present significant risk for pipelines approaching the proverbial recontracting “cliff.”
Posts from Rick Smead
On Thursday, June 18, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) issued a Notice of Inquiry (NOI) to reset the index that’s used to make annual changes to the rate ceilings for interstate pipelines that transport crude oil, refined products, and other hydrocarbon liquids. Every year, the highest rate an indexed oil pipeline can charge goes up or down — almost always up — using the FERC index. The commission’s new proposal, which would become effective in July 2021, follows an already-approved index adjustment that will take effect a week from Wednesday, on July 1. Taken together, the two changes would reduce the maximum annual increase in the rate ceiling from more than 4% now to less than 1%, which could have a major impact on liquids pipeline owners. Today, we discuss the NOI, the meaning of the pipeline index, where it came from, and where it might be headed.
The vast majority of the incremental natural gas pipeline capacity out of the Marcellus/Utica production area in recent years is designed to transport gas to either the Midwest, the Gulf Coast or the Southeast. Advancing these projects to construction and operation hasn’t always been easy, but generally speaking, most of the new pipelines and pipeline reversals have come online close to when their developers had planned. In contrast, efforts to build new gas pipelines into nearby New York State — a big market and the gateway to gas-starved New England — have hit one brick wall after another. At least until lately. In the past few weeks, one federal court ruling breathed new life into National Fuel Gas’s long-planned Northern Access Pipeline and another gave proponents of the proposed Constitution Pipeline hope that their project may finally be able to proceed. Today, we consider recent legal developments that may at long last enable new, New York-bound outlets for Marcellus/Utica gas to be built.
Back on March 15, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission shook up master limited partnerships (MLPs) and their investors by deciding that income taxes would no longer be factored into the cost-of-service-based tariff rates of MLP-owned pipelines. We said then that there was no need to panic. In part, this was based on the view the FERC policy wouldn’t affect as much of the industry as some worried it would. But more importantly, our soothing message was tied to the fact it would take a long time for this to play out. It looks like we were right to have some confidence. Today, we explain why the commission’s July 18 vote on a topic as nerdy as “accumulated deferred income taxes” can warm the hearts of MLP investors.
There has been a lot of acrimony and polarization among the natural gas industry, the environmental community, various consumer advocates, industrial energy users, organized power markets and renewables developers in recent years. However, the ongoing government efforts to prop up the power sector’s coal-fired and nuclear generators have succeeded in uniting all those disparate interests into a single voice saying a single word: No! Today, we discuss the history of the administration’s planned support of coal and nuclear, the unusually unified reaction to it from groups that are more often at odds with each other, and some underlying assumptions about natural gas that aren’t — well — how the gas industry says it works.
Two months ago, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission shook up master limited partnerships (MLPs) and their investors by deciding that income taxes would no longer be factored into the cost-based tariff rates of MLP-owned pipelines. We said then that there was no need to panic — that all this will take time to play out, and that the end results may not be as widespread or dire as some feared. Today, we provide an update, dig into FERC’s other actions on changes in income taxes, and discuss the phenomenon known as “FERC Time.”
The aftershocks are still being felt from last Thursday’s decision by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) that interstate gas and liquids pipelines’ cost-based tariff rates can’t include anything for income taxes if the pipelines are owned by master limited partnerships (MLPs) — and most are. Many investors did freak out — no other phrase sums it up better — when they heard that news. Share prices for midstream companies plummeted in midday trading, and we imagine that many angry calls were made by investors to their financial advisers. “Why didn’t we know about this?!” In fact, although this proceeding had been simmering for a while, FERC’s action was harsher than expected by most experts. But the impact of the change is likely to be less far-reaching than the Wall Street frenzy would have you believe, at least for most MLPs. And, by the way, the issue at hand — whether and how to factor in taxes in calculating MLPs’ cost-of-service-based rates for interstate pipelines –– has been around for decades. Today, we discuss FERC’s new policy statement on the treatment of income taxes and what it means for natural gas, crude oil, natural gas liquid (NGL) and refined product pipeline rates; and for investors in MLPs that own and operate the systems.
A federal appellate court decision has set back the approval of a newly completed set of natural gas pipelines in the U.S. Southeast, and raised the possibility that all gas pipeline projects will need to clear a new — and potentially challenging — hurdle before they can secure a final OK from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). In its late-August ruling in Sierra Club, et al vs. FERC, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit said FERC’s environmental impact statement for the Southeast Market Pipelines Project, which includes the 1.1-Bcf/d Sabal Trail pipeline from west-central Alabama to central Florida, should have considered greenhouse gas emissions from gas-fired power plants the new pipelines will serve. Today, we explore the potentially far-reaching effect of the decision on midstream companies and the utilities that depend on them.
On August 4, the U.S. Senate confirmed two new commissioners for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), restoring the three-member quorum legally required for FERC to vote. The Senate action ended a six-month dry spell during which FERC could not issue any orders, and thus could not approve any of the many pipeline projects pending there. What does it mean that FERC can act again to approve new projects? And does that mean the industry can move forward at the pace it needs? Today we explore these questions and assess what it will take to get some key gas infrastructure projects back on track.
The U.S. and Australia have been ramping up their LNG exports — Australia already is the world’s second-largest LNG exporter after Qatar and the U.S. will soon rank third. Two recent events highlight the difference between the two countries and their natural gas markets. First, in June the Australian prime minister acted to curtail LNG exports next year because of gas-supply shortages affecting domestic consumers. Second, on July 19, the Potential Gas Committee released its biennial analysis of recoverable gas resources in the U.S.; its findings support the view that U.S. LNG exports can continue growing without causing domestic supply constraints. Today we review the PGC report and the Australian LNG/supply situation, then compare the two markets.
Only a few years ago, pretty much all the natural gas flowing through pipelines in the southeastern U.S. was headed north to serve demand in the Northeast and the Midwest. But that’s all been changing — and fast. Gas production in the Marcellus/Utica has soared and now meets the needs of the Northeast and more. And, as LNG exports from the Gulf Coast ramp up and Southeast gas demand for power generation rises, more and more Marcellus/Utica gas is flowing south, raising the question of whether pipes in the Southeast can handle it all over the long term. Today, we discuss the findings of RBN’s work in preparing a study for the American Petroleum Institute (API) on the adequacy of regional gas pipeline infrastructure. RBN’s work discussed here is the current analysis being used to inform and develop stakeholder briefings. We anticipate API will release the final version in report form, after its completion.
As it builds out the nation’s oil and natural gas pipeline networks to keep pace with ever-changing needs, the midstream sector has faced a number of challenges, perhaps chief among them regulatory delays exacerbated by organized environmental opposition. An oft-repeated priority of the new administration has been to make it easier to advance the development of new energy infrastructure development. That raises a few questions. How much difference will this apparent change in attitude make? Should we expect a huge surge in new pipeline projects to be approved and move forward? Today we examine major projects that have faced drawn-out approval processes and evaluate the degree to which a new administration can grease the skids for new pipelines.
Many factors are weighed before a midstream company commits to building, or a shipper commits to shipping on, a major crude oil pipeline. Where is incremental pipeline capacity needed? What would be the logical origin and terminus for the pipeline? What should the project’s capacity be, and what would be the capital cost of building the project? Where the economic rubber really meets the road is the question of what unit cost––or rate per barrel––would the pipeline developer need to charge to recover its costs and earn a reasonable rate of return on its investment. A really important aspect of that is what the developer will be allowed to charge, once regulators get into it. Today we continue our review of crude oil pipeline economics with an overview of who regulates oil pipelines, how they do it, and what it means for rates.
In Part 1 of this series we discussed the fact that new pipeline development is driven by either need or opportunity, and more often than not, a combination of the two. The key question that pipeline developers and their customers (the shippers) have to consider before committing to build new capacity, we said, is whether it will “pay” to flow crude on the pipeline once it’s built––not just the first year or the first three, but for years if not decades to come. To answer this question, pipeline developers and shippers have to consider both current and future economics. There are three fundamental factors that drive pipeline economics: 1) future supply dynamics (and the resulting price impact) at the origination point (Point A); 2) future demand (and price) at the destination point (Point B); and 3) the transportation cost to flow crude from Point A to Point B.
Many factors are weighed before a midstream company commits to building, or a shipper commits to shipping on, a major crude oil pipeline. Where is incremental pipeline capacity needed? What would be the logical origin and terminus for the pipeline? What should the project’s capacity be, and what would be the capital cost of building the project? Where the economic rubber really meets the road is the question of what unit cost––or rate per barrel––would the pipeline developer need to charge to recover its costs and earn a reasonable rate of return on its investment. Today we continue our review of crude oil pipeline economics with a look at the rules-of-thumb for determining what pipeline transportation rates would be.
Despite the doom and gloom that many see in the global LNG market –– too much supply, weak demand growth, and low LNG prices –– the possibility remains that the sector may offer the opportunity for low-cost, highly responsive market participants to do quite well, and even thrive. How can that be? After all, we’ve just seen another year of low crude oil prices resulting in very low oil/natural gas margins, and the expectation of high oil/gas margins were critical in supporting the development of many U.S. liquefaction/LNG export projects. But a combination of responsive demand, low cost infrastructure development and the possibility that number of exporting countries could run out of gas at or near the end of their existing contracts could change the outlook for ongoing LNG export development. Today, we look at the LNG market in the context of themes discussed at the North American Gas Forum (NAGF). Warning: this blog includes a plug for this year’s NAGF conference.