2019 – The Marcellus In Winter

marcellus shale winter.jpg

To nobody’s surprise, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf began his second term by calling for a mineral extraction tax to be layered upon the State’s local impact fee.  Of course, the Governor never mentioned the impact fee in his budget address, continuing his administration long policy of seeking to portray Pennsylvania as the only state that doesn’t tax the natural gas industry.

When the Governor first took office in 2015, he advocated the extraction tax as a way to pay for Pennsylvania schools. Now, he seeks the extra revenue to pay for Pennsylvania infrastructure.  Should the tax be approved, the connection to the schools would have been more beneficial to the industry (think of the public relations possibilities it would have brought the industry in every part of the State).  The infrastructure tie-in will not be as helpful, but given current economics the industry will fight the tax under any circumstances.

One thing that’s been made clear by a week-long trip to Texas and conversations with top gas company executives is the disconnect between the public’s perception of the financial health of the natural gas industry and its actual financial condition.  A decade of overproduction combined with insufficient pipeline capacity and low gas prices has caused gas company stock prices to plummet.  Now, the future viability of these companies is at risk.  As one executive put it, “we have no choice but to fight the extraction tax.  We don’t generate enough revenue to pay it.”

In a sense they’ve been trapped by their own success.  The Marcellus has yielded far more gas than most thought possible ten years ago.  Improved production techniques have decreased the cost of extraction, leading to overproduction.  Add that to the lack of pipeline capacity, the antiquated Jones Act prohibition against transporting liquid natural gas on the high seas from one American port to another except on American-flagged ships (of which there are none), and the proximity of gas to the oil being produced in the Permian Basin of South Texas (which has actually dropped the marginal cost of natural gas in that region to negative numbers), and you have the dire economic times facing Marcellus gas producers.

Another source of the gas producers’ frustration is the lack of coordination and communication among themselves and with the pipeline companies.  “We’re not the pipes,” said one.  “We don’t like a lot of things they do, and we think they can portray the entire industry in a bad light, but they don’t care about what we say.”

That’s partially true, although some producers do have ownership stakes in some of the pipelines.  As a general rule, residents of the Northeast lump upstream, midstream and downstream together as one industry.  Together they have risen, and together they now are at risk of falling.

Producers have little left in their budgets to expand outreach to places in Pennsylvania that currently don’t “feel” the industry, like Philadelphia and the Southeast.  That’s bad for us all, as the Southeast stands to gain the most from effective, conscientious and environmentally sensitive development of this resource.  We have the train lines, the interstate highways, the Marcus Hook refinery and the Port of Philadelphia pretty much all in the same place.  That we’ve failed to capitalize on this could be the greatest missed opportunity for the Philadelphia region in the last century.

As for pipeline companies, they face years of delay while well-funded and organized environmental groups, and unsympathetic politicians, place roadblock after roadblock in their way.  Some of this, of course, is nobody’s fault but the pipeline companies for their both perceived and not infrequently actual disregard of local law and sensitivities. Overall for the industry in all of its myriad forms, Winter 2019 is not a pretty picture.

Nobody wins under the current scenario.  Environmentalists temporarily will celebrate the problems in the gas industry, but that glee will be short lived.  Despite breathless claims in the press and among certain politicians, those opposing natural gas can provide no alternative.

Ironically, environmentalists may be the salvation of the industry, as they push politicians into unsustainable, ridiculous policies. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo rapidly is running out of options to counter his “No Nukes, No Fracking, No Pipeline” stance. Already Westchester County feels the pinch as its main utility, Consolidated Energy, now prohibits any further growth due to a lack of power supply. New York City soon may face the same fate.  Jeff Bezos had better be sure that Long Island City will have enough power to handle his new Amazon sub-headquarters.  Where will that energy come from?

Under current conditions, many in the industry expect a further wave of consolidation. The fracking industry was created not by the large oil companies but by the smaller independents.  Those smaller companies now may have to sell out.  That will not be good news for the Northeast.

It’s getting more likely that in the future Governor Wolf and his successors will not deal with six or seven producers based in Houston, Dallas or Oklahoma City, each with major Pennsylvania operations.  Instead, he will find himself trying to get the better of two or three companies based in London, the Netherlands or other foreign countries, for whom Pennsylvania is but a blip on their radar screen.

Questions? Let Dan know.

Daniel Markind of Flaster Greenberg

Daniel Markind is a shareholder at Flaster Greenberg PC with over 35 years of experience as a real estate and corporate transactional attorney. He has represented individuals and companies in the energy industry for over 20 years. Dan is a frequent lecturer on Marcellus Shale and other mineral extraction issues and is regularly asked to speak at conferences, in the media and at other venues regarding energy issues and their legal and political implications.

The DRBC and the Limits of Administrative Agency Power

20180927_Marcellus Shale Update.png

There are two lessons from the petition by Pennsylvania State Senators Lisa Baker and Gene Yaw and Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnatti to intervene on behalf of a Wayne County landowner in his challenge to new rules by the Delaware River Basin Commission that would ban hydraulic fracturing in the entire Basin. The first is that there is a limit to how far administrative agencies can go and how far their power extends.  The second is that it is imperative for the industry to engage with the citizens of the State to enforce its rights and not just speak to some residents or concentrate on only one issue.

The move by the State Senators is the latest in a series of maneuvers related to proposed rules by the DRBC that stretch back years. In their current manifestation, the DRBC announced on September 13, 2017 it would publish new rules that would ban fracking throughout the Basin. The Commission claimed that fracking anywhere in the Basin constitutes a “water project” that is within the DRBC’s power to regulate. Earlier, in 2016, a landowner in Wayne County had sued the DRBC claiming that it did not have jurisdiction to prevent the drilling of a natural gas well on his property. The lawsuit was dismissed in US District Court but overturned by the Third Circuit, which in July 2018 sent it back to the District Court.

The current landowner argues that the DRBC interprets the term “Project” so broadly that it can regulate anything that happens within the Basin. I made that same argument at a public meeting in Philadelphia in January 2018. One person from the American Petroleum Institute came, but nobody from any of the natural gas producers showed up. Because there was no one there to advance the industry position, all we heard was a series of truths, half-truths and plain falsehoods. It was a propaganda session for those who oppose any natural gas development. Given a chance to engage with Southeastern Pennsylvanians who know little about the subject, the energy industry punted. It was yet another missed opportunity.

The industry could have made the point that the DRBC’s position is so overbroad it puts them in virtual control of, or at least gives them a veto over, any development, whether fracking related or not, that happens anywhere within the Basin – which extends the length of the 330 mile Delaware River. Supporters of the ban were thrilled, but cooler heads in the Third Circuit asked whether the 1961 interstate compact granting power to the DRBC was meant to be so broad. Using the DRBC standard, it could prevent the erection of a gas station 30 miles away from the river.

All three Pennsylvania State Senators seeking to intervene are Republican, but we need to ask ourselves whether this truly is a partisan issue. Are our citizens truly comfortable with an administrative agency comprised of five unelected but appointed individuals claiming so much power to regulate our lives, even for activities outside the natural gas industry? There are those who think fracking should not be permitted in the area within the jurisdiction of the DRBC – or anywhere else for that matter. Regardless, they should not be so sanguine about the enormous power grab being attempted by the DRBC.  Over subscribed power has a way of appearing fickle when the next project comes along that we do not oppose but actually support.

One other area where those opposed to natural gas development should not be so sanguine is in their ultimate reliance on Russian gas exports for their winter power.  Heading into the 2018-9 winter, New York and New England may be even more reliant on gas imports than they were last winter. As you recall, that meant Boston had to turn to Moscow for gas drilled in the environmentally sensitive Arctic. The Russian supply may not be as available this winter. While all eyes have been focused on the Supreme Court confirmation, the United States and Russia are edging closer to confrontation in the Middle East.

Last week, Israel attacked a Syrian rocket facility in Latakia, on the Mediterranean coast north of Lebanon.  The area is well outside of the normal Israeli area of operation, and indicates the importance the Israelis placed on the target. Syrian anti-aircraft guns erupted, missing all of the Israeli planes but shooting down a Russian military transport plane, killing 15 Russians. The Russian military blamed Israel, claiming it did not follow the normal rules for informing Russia when Israel conducts military operations in Syria.  Although Russian President Putin played down the issue, the Russian military continued to accuse Israel. Last week Russia announced that new, more sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons were being transferred to Syria. National Security Advisor John Bolton warned Russia that such a transfer would be a “significant escalation”.

Oil prices rose over $70/barrel. While not moving in step with natural gas prices, the coming of further Iran sanctions adds to the price pressure on fuel. If Russia and the United States grow further estranged in the Middle East, it could affect the ability of Massachusetts to call on Russian gas now that it has effectively banned Pennsylvania gas. Both short term and long term, I doubt that is a good move economically, ecologically or national security-wise for New Englanders.

Questions? Let Dan know.

Daniel Markind of Flaster Greenberg

Daniel Markind is a shareholder at Flaster Greenberg PC with over 35 years of experience as a real estate and corporate transactional attorney. He has represented individuals and companies in the energy industry for over 20 years. Dan is a frequent lecturer on Marcellus Shale and other mineral extraction issues and is regularly asked to speak at conferences, in the media and at other venues regarding energy issues and their legal and political implications.

Marcellus Shale Update – 1.30.2018

Ten years after the start of the shale revolution, the United States reached the height of absurdity.  A tanker named the Gaselys docked in Boston Harbor this weekend carrying natural gas.  New England needs this gas because it refuses to allow the buildout of our interstate natural gas pipeline system.  The Gaselys carried liquefied natural gas from – Russia.

You read that correctly.  Despite being just a few hours away from the most prolific natural gas fields in the world in Northeastern Pennsylvania, New England needs to obtain natural gas shipped on the high seas from gas wells in Russia.

Absolutely everything about this picture is wrong.  The gas could have been produced in Pennsylvania under American environmental regulations overseen by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.  Instead it was produced in the Arctic eco-system overseen by the Russians.

The gas could have been transported a few hundred miles along newly built gas pipelines that are extraordinarily safe (though not 100%, nothing is).  Instead, the gas was shipped thousands of miles over the ocean in tankers of unknown quality and safety.

New England residents could have developed a secure, domestic supply of natural gas at affordable prices.  Instead, New England has a completely unreliable supply of natural gas at possibly the highest prices in the world.  It is astounding that any business would even consider locating in New England.   Boston made the cut of the final 20 cities competing for Amazon’s new headquarters.  How Amazon seriously could consider setting up operations there is beyond me.

Finally, the money used to purchase the gas could have gone to American companies who employ American workers and pay royalties to American landowners.  Instead, the money went to – Vladimir Putin.  And it’s not a one-time thing.  There will be other Russian gas shipments to Boston in the upcoming weeks.

The reason for all of this, of course, is that the shortsighted politicians in New York and New England refuse to allow construction of the pipelines needed to move the gas from the Marcellus Region to New England.  These politicians claim they are preserving the environment and combatting climate change.  They are doing the opposite.

Most of the power plants in New England can use either oil or natural gas.  Usually the price of natural gas makes it the preferred fuel.  With the price spikes affecting New England this winter, those plants have switched to oil, a much dirtier burning fuel.

In addition, New England politicians and “environmentalists” applauded as  New England’s nuclear power plants shut down.  The Pilgrim Nuclear Plant in Massachusetts is the only one left.  It will close by June 2019.  No one knows how that power supply (about 4.1% of Massachusetts’s total) will be made up.  In 2014, Vermonters cheered when the Yankee Nuclear Plant closed.  “Enviros” assured everyone that the balance would be offset from cleaner renewables.  No such luck.  After years of decline, New England’s CO2 emissions rose 5%.

There is no delicate way to put this.  The actions of the “environmental community” relating to natural gas are making our world, and our children’s world, less safe, less secure and less environmentally friendly.

If these “environmentalists” have an honest plan to power America’s needs, please show it to us.  Do we really need to import Russian gas before they present us with a real plan to run our nation in 2018?  How about even by 2038?  Anyone who loves the environment knows there are trade-offs.  Which ones would our “environmentalists” make?

I know these posts are read in the United States Senate, so I will ask the Senators who receive them to forward this to Massachusetts Senators Warren and Markey with one question.  What are you trying to accomplish?

Energy is not a play toy.  We’re not in a university classroom where you can pontificate with no real world consequences.  This IS the real world.

Your constituents’ money is going to Russia.  Your CO2 emissions are rising.  Your oceans and bays are filling with gas tankers.  Your state and region are becoming less competitive.  As American dollars flow into Vladimir Putin’s pockets, please help us understand what you are doing.

Questions? Let Dan know.