Posted tagged ‘prices’

Natural Gas Prices Can’t Rise Soon Enough

June 29, 2016

Natural gas prices have dropped sharply over the past two years and while the prospect of paying higher prices for energy is not appealing, unless prices rise soon, the prices we pay later are likely to be much higher and for much longer than currently forecast.  The chart below shows the decline in natural gas prices over the past two years.  In response,  a steady rise in production of U.S. natural gas stagnated and began declining over the past year.             1

One impact of very low energy prices is a U.S. energy industry that is in financial shambles, devastating industries that support oil and gas extraction and threatening the financial institutions that lend to energy-related industries along the way.    In the first quarter of 2016 the largest shale gas producer in the world had negative cash from operations.  Most other large producers similarly had revenues from the sale of oil and gas that didn’t cover operating costs much less capital expenditures like drilling and completion. Sympathy for energy companies isn’t expected and won’t be forthcoming but the result of consistently low energy prices is predictable, lower U.S. oil and gas production.  The longer prices for natural gas remain very low, and the smaller and financially weaker the industry gets, the less likely production will be able to ramp-up as prices rise (as they most surely will) and that means even higher prices in the future and for a longer period of time.

The Importance of Shale Gas

The U.S. is increasingly dependent on shale gas. Conventional natural gas production appears to be in terminal decline as fewer producers are drilling those wells.  Shale gas now represents more than half of all natural gas produced in the U.S. (and rising).  Production of shale gas will have to continue to increase just to compensate for the decline in the production of conventional natural gas but recently shale gas production has also begun to decline.  2

The Marcellus and Utica shale gas regions (closest to NH) are relatively new sources of shale gas (production began in the mid-2000s).  They, Marcellus in particular, are the  kings of shale gas in the U.S..  Not surprisingly they have, on average, the lowest cost-of- production of any shale gas region in the country.  As a result, production in those regions has been maximized and the percentage of U.S. shale gas that comes from the Marcellus and Utica shales is now almost 50 percent.  That percentage probably would be even higher except for pipeline capacity that limits movement of gas from the region.

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But even in these lower cost-of-production regions the lowest cost producers have a breakeven price of about $3.50-$4.00/MMBTU (the average of all producers in the regions is higher).  Meanwhile natural gas prices in the U.S. have been below $3.00 since 2015 and below $2.00 in 2016.  The average production costs in shale regions that have been producing longer is considerably higher (from about $5.00/MMBTU to more than $6.50).  The impact of natural gas prices on the production of increasingly important shale gas is best understood by looking at the impact that prices have had on different shale gas producing regions across the country.  The chart below shows changes in production from each shale play’s peak production to May of 2016, when spot natural gas prices were at $1.92/MMBTU.  As economics would predict, the chart shows that production declines were greatest in the highest production cost regions and smallest in the lowest cost Marcellus and Utica Shale regions. On a percentage basis declines in production appear even more dramatic.  Production has declined 50 percent  in the Haynesville shale region of Louisiana and Texas since peak production occurred there in 2012.  The Barnett (Texas) and Fayetteville (Arkansas) shale regions experienced production declines of 39 and 26 percent respectively since 2012.  In contrast the lower cost Marcellus (0.4%) and Utica (2.0%) experienced minimal declines in production and only in 2016 when spot prices were under $2.00/MMBTU.

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But here is the thing, like all gas and oil producing regions, the longer the Marcellus and Utica shales produce gas the more likely production cost will rise as increased withdrawals require production to move from core areas of the shale play to more marginal areas of production.

Prices and Costs Matter

Only in a fantasy world will U.S. production of natural gas continue to increase for decades with prices remaining near or below breakeven costs.  In the real world prices and costs matter.  I am a fan of natural gas and believe increasing availability in New England will benefit consumers and businesses but thinking that natural gas can be simultaneously cheap, abundant, and profitable defies the rules economics.

Unfortunately I think the U.S. Energy Information Agency is contributing to a fantasy by suggesting an almost unlimited supply of natural gas at low prices in their forecast of natural gas production and prices contained in the EIA’s  2016 Annual Energy Outlook (released in May).  I respect the work of the EIA and regularly rely on the data they produce but this forecast seems to lack a fundamental grounding in economics.

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At $6.00/MMBTU (in 2015 dollars)the U.S. will have an ample supply of natural gas for decades.  At $5.00 (not reached until 2024 in the EIA forecast scenario) production is unlikely to increase by 50 percent as the EIA forecast suggest. At prices below $3.00 for long, as is the current case, production will decline significantly and supply shortfalls will require supplementing U.S. production with ever larger withdrawals from storage, increasing imports (questionable if that is possible) and/or  a reconsideration of the exporting of natural gas.  It is important to note that shortfalls in production don’t mean there won’t be enough natural gas, there is ample gas in storage to cover shortfalls for a while but prices will rise quickly as more gas is withdrawn from storage.  Rising prices should prompt increases in production but things may be different this time, depending on how soon prices rise.  The industry is smaller, financially weakened,  and unlike a few years ago capital, as well as workers who were forced to leave the industry as it shrank, may not be as readily available to ramp up production as prices rise.

As we know too well from experience, natural gas supply shortfalls have more dramatic and especially harmful impacts on New England.  New Hampshire and the rest of the country would be better off with a modest rise in natural gas prices now rather than face supply shortfalls and much higher prices in future years.

Electricity Prices Highlight the Benefits of Markets and Choice

March 28, 2013

Four of the six New England states (CT,ME, MA and NH) had lower average retail prices for residential electricity customers in January of 2013 than they did in January of 2012 (chart below).

Chang in Avg Retail Price of Electricity

Most of that is a result of the increasing sales into the region’s electricity market  of electricity generated by natural gas which is priced lower than the electricity generated using other sources.  The decline in the average price in NH is smaller than in some other states but it could have been, and could still be,  larger if retail competition in the residential electricity market takes hold.   The chart below shows the average cost of retail electricity for residential customers in the continental United States in January of 2013.  New Hampshire and all of New England have among the highest average rates but based on the contract information from the largest competitive suppliers of residential electricity in New Hampshire, the average price would be significantly lower (at least until November of 2013) for those who choose the lowest rates available from competitive suppliers (other higher rates are available that let customers choose to purchase a higher percentage of electricity generated from ‘green” sources).

Avg Residential Price of Electrictyby State

I was going to make this a much longer post and include a discussion of why the warnings by some about an “over-reliance” on natural gas in the region are overstated but not inaccurate (the natural gas pipeline limitations to the region are real but more likely to be remedied than not with increased natural gas usage in the region) but I will save that for another day.  The reputation and belief in free(er) markets and competition have taken a beating over the past several years so  for now I am just going to enjoy highlighting  of  one of their recent successes.

Gasoline Taxes, Prices, and Price Differentials

March 27, 2013

Policymakers often assume that sales and excise taxes are the primary reason for variations in the price of goods and they too often assume that consumers consider differences in tax rates across jurisdictions when making purchases rather than differences in the total price (tax plus non-tax price) of a good.  A good example was the $.10 drop in NH’s cigarette tax in 2010.   Some thought the decrease would be a beacon to NH for consumers.  But the decline did nothing to lower the price of cigarettes in NH because manufacturers increased their price by an equivalent amount immediately after the tax decrease (effectively capturing the revenue that would have gone to the State of NH).  I did a fair amount of gloating in an early post as the revenue numbers reflected my predictions. Consumers saw no price break and no major changes occurred in other states so no increases in competitive advantage for retailers occurred in NH (retailers saw no benefit) and the longer-term trend of declining smoking rates (along with a things like higher gasoline prices and fewer visitors to the state) were the primary determinants of sales trends, and thus lower revenues.

The demand for gasoline, like cigarettes, is relatively inelastic so it takes a surprisingly large price increase to change consumption very much but differences in prices among  locations may shift the location of some gasoline sales where consumers can conveniently choose where to make their purchases.  I can buy gasoline as easily in Maine as in NH and with a little more effort I can also buy in MA.  I often can get gasoline as or even a bit cheaper in MA than in the town where I live,  but I can’t get gasoline cheaper in Maine.  I can also get gasoline  cheaper if I drive a few miles to towns just north and south of me, or even to a gasoline station on the other side of town.   These price differences are often $.10 per gallon and occur among retailers of similar types – i.e. gasoline stations with a convenience store, the same brand convenience store selling the same brand of gasoline.   Nevertheless, when I look at the average price of gasoline between neighboring states (with some exceptions like California where environmental regulations have large retail price impacts), the differences in price appear  to be strongly related to differences in state tax rates (r=.82).  Comparing statewide average prices and tax rates for gasoline masks much of the variation in pricing that occurs within states and even within communities.  That is one reason why I think policymakers focus so much on tax rates as the primary reason for price differences.

State Gasoline Prices

Despite all of the attention to gasoline prices and proposals to raise or lower gasoline taxes over the past decade there has been surprisingly little research on the retail price impacts (or “pass-through” effects) of changes in gasoline taxes.  That may be because changes in gasoline taxes are relatively small (usually a few cents) compared to the much larger price changes that occur as a result of  supply/demand issues and variations in the world-wide price of oil.  The chart below shows how gasoline prices in NH have changed since 2004 and it also shows the theoretical price if the state had no excise tax on gasoline.  The red line shows the theoretical prices because, like cigarettes, retail prices may or may not be reduced by an equivalent amount if the gasoline tax were lowered.

Monthly NH Gasoline Prices

The theory of tax incidence suggests that sales and excise taxes should be fully passed on to consumers in competitive markets with constant marginal costs.  Less than full “pass-though” is expected in markets with increasing marginal costs, while the pass-through rate may be less than, or greater than, one-hundred percent in markets that are less competitive.  In addition, tax increases in one state may lead to higher prices across the border as stations there face greater demand.  A study examining a temporary reduction and reinstatement of a 5% gasoline tax in Illinois (sorry I can’t find the reference)  found that that when the 5% tax was eliminated, prices declined by 3% and when the tax was reinstated prices rose by 4%.

Politicos are looking to score big points for their positions on gasoline taxes.  There was a time when whatever marginal changes lawmakers made to gasoline taxes may have meant a lot to changes in prices at the pump.  Right now, and in the future, changes in world-wide oil markets are likely to overwhelm  any impacts from changes in state taxes and  together with the uncertainty over the degree of pass-through, make any predictions about the economic impacts of gasoline tax hikes nearly impossible.

Longing for a Recovery in Housing

January 30, 2013

On only a few issues can I say that I would be happy to be wrong.  My views on likely home price appreciation and New Hampshire’s housing market  is one of them.     Housing is important to the state’s economic recovery and longer-term prospects for economic growth.  By way of shameless self-promotion, I will be on NH Public Radio’s “The Exchange” discussing some of my views on the topic.  I’m not a real estate economist so it will be interesting to hear how my views differ from someone who will also be a guest and who is a very good real estate economist,  (Russ Thibeault from Applied Economic Research).

The problem I have with most discussions of the  housing market is that housing is by far the economic metric that individuals have the most emotional, psychological and often direct financial attachment to.  Discussions of the housing market are the  most prone to hope, optimism, and wishful thinking, and the least amenable (and welcome) to dispassionate analysis.   If you want something to be true  it is as easy to find evidence to support your view as it is to dismiss evidence that contradicts it.  Every day we hear about the housing comeback nationally so we want to believe it is happening in NH, and we will look for any sign that it is.   I don’t see much evidence that the housing market is recovering as fast in NH as it is nationally and I don’t see factors in the near future that will contribute to it being so.   Long term, job and population growth are the best determinants of home price appreciation in a region and neither bodes well for a quick housing comeback in NH.  The chart below shows the relationship between year-over-year home price appreciation in each state and job growth during the same time period.  Each marker represents one state’s value on job growth (the horizontal or “x” axis) and its rate of home price appreciation over the same time period (the vertical or “y” axis).  Some states with large price declines are seeing out-sized rebounds but job and population growth largely determine price appreciation trends over the long-term (during bubble times that relationship breaks down but eventually it returns to trend),  NH is the red marker and reflects a state with both low job growth and appreciation rates over the past year.

job growth and home price appreciation

I know home sales have increased significantly in NH over the past year but I wonder how large a role  investor purchases for conversion to rental housing is playing in that trend.  For a number of reasons, that I will discuss in future posts, I think economic, demographic, financial, socioeconomic and social trends are likely to favor the performance of rental housing relative to homeownership in NH for several years.  Nationally and in almost all states, the homeownership rate fell during the housing market crash.  NH has a high homeownership rate and it barely dropped during the crash.  Many states are seeing homeownership rates begin to rebound and will see demand and price appreciation benefits from that.  Meanwhile, NH’s rate remains at historically high levels and given the demographic and other trends I don’t have time to discuss in this post, I think the rate will move lower and  closer to the state’s long-term rates.  That won’t help price appreciation.

Homeownership Rates

Gosh that sounds apocalyptic, its not, it just means that we shouldn’t soon expect the big price rebounds seen in many states.  Except I know we will expect exactly that, because residential real estate is about psychology and  about comparables and comparisons,  what has happened in the past.  Any industry strongly influenced by those factors is going to regularly disappoint.

The Stone Age Didn’t End Because of a Shortage of Stones

January 24, 2013

The operator of the New England power grid (ISO New England) issued a media release yesterday noting that because of the decline in natural gas prices, overall, wholesale electricity prices in the region dropped in 2012.  Reader”s” (if there is more than one) of this blog know I write a lot about energy issues and have noted the trends and benefits of natural gas to energy prices in the region (here, here, here, and here as well as in posts about other energy issues).

Increased U.S. production of natural gas has resulted in price declines and price declines are resulting in more fuel switching that will put more pressure on the price of natural gas unless production increases faster than increased demand.  U.S. production of  natural gas is likely to continue to increase faster than other fossil fuels (see chart below), but increased fuel switching will put more pressure on natural gas prices.

US fossil fuel production

One problem for New England is that our infrastructure for delivering natural gas to the region is the weakest of any region of the country and one result is that unless or until that changes, we won’t benefit as much as other regions from increased production.  The chart below shows a forecast of real, inflation adjusted fossil fuel prices to 2040.  Nationally, natural gas prices will rise faster than coal, but more slowly than oil.  The natural gas price trends here are for prices at Louisiana’s  Henry Hub distribution point (the reference price for natural gas prices), New England prices are higher but the question is, how much faster or slower will they grow in New England?  Improved infrastructure would help.

US fossil fuel prices

Coal is abundant and prices will grow relatively more slowly, but the economics of coal as an energy source still don’t give it an advantage over gas.  Over the next 3-5 years over 200 coal-fired electric generating plants will be retired according to a coal trade group.  They blame environmental regulations but there is more to it than that.  Besides the greatly narrowed gap in fuel costs between natural gas and coal, the fact is most people don’t want coal used, or have it used near them.  The cost of burning coal more cleanly is relatively high (it’s not just regulators that impose those costs, it’s the only way a majority of the public will support coal and if it costs too much they wont support it as long as there are more competitively priced alternatives – as there are now). Finally the cost of constructing a coal plant, compared to combined-cycle natural gas power plants is much higher (even without the new equipment required to reduce emissions) and they take longer to build 4-5 years compared to 2-3 years for natural gas, making financing of such projects more difficult.

I am not a coal hater.  Although I have worked on many more combined-cycle natural gas electric generating plants, I have also worked on two or three electric generating projects that burn coal, most recently one involving super-critical clean coal technologies and carbon capturing,  but phasing out older, less efficient, coal-fired plants makes perfect sense and can be done over time without jeopardizing the reliability of the grid if new natural-gas fired plants are built.  Relying just on natural gas doesn’t solve our  CO2 problem but it helps (ok deniers, let loose – I am a believer that CO2 is a problem that needs to be addressed).

The point of this post (by now you are probably asking if there is one) is that fossil fuels are not going away anytime soon.  Not too long ago there were apocalyptic predictions about the availability of fossil fuels in the future.  Those predictions aren’t proving accurate but at some point fossil fuels will run out.  Not in my lifetime, which is a good thing for my business as long as I still can get hired to work on natural gas or (gasp) coal-fired electric generating projects.   But more abundant fossil fuel doesn’t (or shouldn’t) lessen environmental concerns over its usage.  The stone age didn’t end because of a shortage of stones and the fossil fuel age shouldn’t wait to end until we run out of it.  Somebody will have to pay for developing new technology that ends the fossil fuel age.  Unless we start now,  the cost of the U.S. debt that we pass down to future generations will look small compared to the costs of developing new energy technologies that we will be passing down in the face of genuine declines in fossil fuels.  It is not just a matter of  increasing renewable energy,  although that will help.  Solar and wind and even hydro generation suffer from over/under demand issues.  Balancing power output to need is extremely problematic once you try to get renewable power above 20% of total generation, new technologies need to be developed.

The stone age was replaced because newer and better technologies were developed despite an abundance of stones, lets hope the same is true for the fossil fuel age.

The Coming “Consumerism” of Residential Electricty Customers

January 9, 2013

It is no secret that the price of electricity in New Hampshire in relation to prices in most of  the U.S. is high.  That is true for all types of consumers of electricity, residential, commercial, and industrial, but prices for industrial customers were especially high compared to prices across the country.  New England is known for high energy prices but New Hampshire’s electricity prices compare more favorably to the region than they do to other regions and states.  Industrial consumers of electricity in NH, however,  seemed to pay relatively higher prices in comparison to industrial consumers across New England.  Over the last half of the past decade that  changed.  Either because of competition for industrial customers, special rates, or other reasons, the relative price of electricity for industrial customers in NH fell significantly in relation to average prices in New England and are now (through 2011) just below the regional average.  For residential consumers price trends are different.  Compared to the New England average, prices per kwh were relatively low for NH’s residential consumers, but they have been rising and are now (through 2011) just above the New England average.

NH Electricity Prices as a Pct of NE

The price competition that has benefited industrial consumers of electricity in NH is likely partially responsible for the rising prices and higher relative prices facing residential customers. Prices for residential consumers seemed to rise more just as  prices for industrial consumers fell.   As a result, as is being reported in a number of media outlets, competition is becoming more robust in NH for residential consumers of electricity.  That will eventually result in lower or more slowly growing average electricity prices for NH’s residential customers.   Competition does lower prices but it will only do so  for those who actively  participate in the competitive market.  Just like a car dealer,  electric utilities will look for someone to pay the full “sticker price” for every consumer who gets a “deal”.

Say What About Natural Gas Prices?

December 14, 2012

I read a story in the media today where an electric utility is justifying a large rate increase based on the notion that  the price of natural gas for electricity generation has risen by 20% in the past 2 1/2 months.    Hmmm.  Price data for natural gas for electricity production isn’t available in NH because of the small number electricity producers means releasing it would violate disclosure regulations.  Price data for the U.S. and for Massachusetts is available though, and while it does stop at the end of September 2012, it suggests that natural gas prices for electricity generation have been substantially lower for the most of the past two years.   As of September 2012, the year-over-year change in natural gas prices for electricity production in the U.S. and in Massachusetts averaged -30% for the preceding 12 months.  It is hard to see how a 2 1/2 month increase will negate average reductions of 30% over the preceding 12 months.  But a lot of the calculations used in setting electric rates doesn’t conform to mathematical laws.

Nat gas for electrticty 12 mos MA

One would think years of natural gas price declines would have prompted greater  price reductions if  a 2 1/2 month rise warrants a large increase.  Looking at price changes over the same month of the prior year year (to avoid any seasonal distortions that can occur), you can see the prices fell by as much as 40% or more  in 2012.  Prices do vary by state but not enough to negate these trends.  Sure, prices do rise and have very recently, but not enough to offset the tremendous drop they have experienced over the past several years.

nat gas prices for electricity no moving avg


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