Low natural gas prices may draw industries to Louisiana

07 16, 2012 by The Times-Picayune

With natural gas at decade-low prices, state economic officials are working to catch a wave of new investment interest from industries eager to tap into the abundant supply of the clean-burning fuel to power their plants. "We're working hard to position ourselves to get a disproportionate share of that new activity," Stephen Moret, secretary of Louisiana Economic Development, said in an interview last week.

A wellspring of inexpensive natural gas has helped drive down electricity rates for some industrial users, particularly those in the chemical industry. Competitive fuel prices have already been at least partially responsible for several new industrial projects in the state, including a new natural gas-fired power plant Entergy Louisiana plans to build in Westwego and a methanol plant that Vancouver-based Methanex Corp. may build in Geismar.

Royal Dutch Shell PLC is reportedly considering building a $10 billion gas-to-diesel processing plant in Louisiana. That plant, still years away from reality, would convert enough natural gas into diesel fuel to fill more than 160,000 cars a day.

And Sasol Ltd., the South African synthetic fuel and chemical company, announced last September that it was studying the feasibility of building a gas-to-liquids facility in Calcasieu Parish, a process that is still ongoing. The $10 billion project, which could create up to 850 permanent positions and up to 5,500 jobs during peak construction, is slated to be the first of its kind in the nation.

By his count, Moret expects the state will add seven to 15 projects over the next five years, in the range of $500 million to $5 billion apiece, with most topping out at $1.5 billion. It can be a long process, he said, as companies need to make a final investment decision, gain financing and complete designs and permitting long before breaking ground.

Those predictions will likely hinge on several factors, including the pace of environmental permitting for new manufacturing projects, steady domestic natural gas exploration using hydraulic fracturing, and the world's markets steering clear of a severe global recession.

Moret anticipates that the state could secure about four projects a year, with construction on as many as three projects getting underway by early 2013, and "at least double that next year, and 5-to-6 big ones for the next few years," he said.

Increasing business

The ramp-up isn't driven solely by natural gas prices, but its become a "major catalyst" because many of the industries tend to be heavy power users. "We've basically gone from being very uncompetitive in our industrial electricity rates to being pretty competitive," Moret said, adding that in recent years, Louisiana's rates have ranked by price in the bottom quarter of states.

The average price for industrial electricity users in Louisiana is $4.93 cents per kilowatt hour, compared with the national average of $6.52 cents per kilowatt hour, according to recent figures from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Electricity prices depend on the cost for utilities to produce power.

Add that state officials have been touting Louisiana's improved business reputation and a growing belief that domestic manufacturing will rebound, and Moret is "very bullish" that the state is poised for a sustained industrial construction boom that could attract "tens of billions of dollars" of investment in heavy industrial operations.

The Tax Foundation, a research group that promotes lower taxes, released a report earlier this year showing Louisiana's overall state and local tax burden is the lowest in the U.S. for a new manufacturing operation, whereas Texas, a frequent competitor for luring potential projects, is among the highest-cost states for such an endeavor.

In March, New Orleans ranked as the third most cost-attractive business location in the nation, according to a study released by KPMG, the audit, tax and advisory firm. The study considered mid-sized cities with metro-area populations between 1 million and 2 million, and cited the Crescent City's low leasing costs for downtown office space, low natural gas costs and favorable effective income tax rates.
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Falling prices

To be sure, while low natural gas prices may be good news for heavy electricity users, they are less than welcome for gas drillers and producers who may be reeling as prices continue to fall: The number of wells that have drilling in progress in the Haynesville play dropped to 31, as of July 5. That's down about 80 percent from its peak two years ago, said economist Loren Scott, a professor emeritus at Louisiana State University.

Still, Scott believes an increase in manufacturing activity could push up demand for natural gas by as much as 15 percent as attention turns to natural gas-fired power plants, like the Ninemile Point plant that Entergy Louisiana plans to build in Westwego. Combined with moves to begin exporting liquefied natural gas, Scott believes that the rising demand could gradually nudge prices higher domestically in the coming years.

"It's a while, but at least there's something out there that is happening that will help the producers out a little bit," he said in an interview. "They really need an increase in demand to get that price back up to make places like Haynesville profitable again."

In Entergy's case, the 550-megawatt plant, slated to begin construction this year, would replace two deactivated 1950s-era generators at the plant. Last year, Entergy Louisiana also closed on a deal to acquire a 580-megawatt natural-gas power plant near Eunice.

Export terminals on the rise

Part of the industrial development taking place in the state also centers around the establishment of terminals that export LNG.

Cheniere Energy Inc. has received the go-ahead from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to modify its import terminal at Sabine Pass in Cameron Parish for exports, and could begin exporting LNG to the international gas markets as soon as 2015 as part of a $6 billion project.

A similar effort to expand an existing LNG terminal to handle LNG exports could follow suit in Lake Charles.

And Sempra Energy Inc. has announced its own $6 billion LNG export terminal project to be developed at its existing import terminal in southwestern Louisiana.

After a decade of decline, Dan Borne, president of the Louisiana Chemical Association, said the recent burst of activity has added to the number of Louisiana employees in the sector.

"The availability is high and the price is competitive," Borne said about natural gas, calling it "the renaissance of Louisiana chemical manufacturing."