A stretch of coastline on the Texas-Louisiana border provides a startling glimpse of Europe’s energy future. There, where Lake Sabine empties into the Gulf of Mexico, a giant port was completed last year. Built at a cost of $1.5 billion (£900m), it was meant to be a vital new part of America’s energy infrastructure.
Giant tankers from places such as Qatar and Sakhalin island in Russia’s far east were meant to dock there to inject their cargoes of liquefied natural gas (LNG) straight into the national pipeline network.
The Sabine Pass terminal was meant to take about one ship a day but since it opened for business 18 months ago only 10 ships have come in.
“This big shiny new terminal was one of the ones built as the answer to declining US gas production and increasing demand,” said Steve Johnson president of Waterborne Energy, a Texas energy consultancy. “Now it’s in mothballs.”
It is much the same story at America’s eight other LNG import terminals. They are running at only 10% of capacity.
“We have had so much new production come on stream that all of a sudden the role of these terminals has changed dramatically,” said Johnson. “They are getting the world’s leftovers.”
The reason is shale gas — a new and abundant source of natural gas, trapped in rock formations. Oil companies have known about it for decades but always dismissed it because it was too expensive and difficult to extract. In the past few years new technologies that pump water underground to fracture the rock and free the gas have been perfected. The breakthrough has opened a new frontier for the energy industry and turned long-held assumptions about the world’s dwindling supplies on their head.
Suddenly, America is awash with gas. Tony Hayward, chief executive of BP, said it had created a “a revolution in the gas fields of North America”. In a report this summer, the US potential gas committee increased its estimates of American reserves by a third. The Department of Energy now predicts that shale gas could meet half America’s demand within two decades and turn the country into a net exporter.
The gas price has reacted accordingly, crashing by 60% in the past year, severing the long-standing link with the oil price.
The revolution in America has set off activity elsewhere. In August Conoco Phillips signed a deal to explore 1m acres in Poland. Shell has bought licences in Sweden, and Exxon Mobil has large holdings in Germany and Poland. France recently launched a licensing round. Other projects are under way in Argentina, Australia, China and India.
Paul Wheeler, managing director at the Jefferies International investment bank, said: “There is a landgrab going on in Europe. It will change the game if the big oil companies crack the geological code of unconventional gas in Europe. The resulting gas production would make Europe more self sufficient and put the brakes on Russian gas becoming a more potent instrument of political influence.”
Gazprom, the Russian provider of a quarter of Europe’s gas, has been dismissive of shale gas. It has a lot to lose if Europe finds it is sitting on vast reserves. Yet it emerged last month that the company is considering buying an American producer of shale gas, partly to see if it can apply the technology at home.
In Europe it is still early days. Nikos Tsafos of PFC Energy, a consultancy, said: “Unconventional gas has transformed the American market. Europe is at a much earlier stage. There is no doubt there is a big resource base there and everyone is excited about it. But we are not yet seeing the corresponding activity on the ground to make it happen.”
It is not a question of simply transplanting the expertise built up in America to Europe. For one, the geology of mountainous central and eastern Europe is far different to the plains in Texas and Pennsylvania and the Rocky Mountains, where there have been big gas finds.
Also, it took many years and a huge number of companies to finally crack the production problems. “There were 30 or 40 players in America who made some extraordinary technological gains. It’s not clear whether the environment is right for that to occur in Europe,” said Tsafos. “These projects require huge amounts of infrastructure: pipelines, rigs, service companies. It will take some time to build that up.”
Population density is also a factor. Drilling into shale is a large, invasive operation and Europe does not have as much wide open space as North America.
The shale is cracked by rigs that drill down thousands of feet. They are able to turn 90 degrees and continue horizontally to follow gas-rich seams. Once a hole is drilled, explosive charges are inserted and detonated to create a series of openings in pipes laid to keep the well open. A mixture of water and sand is then shot down at high pressure. When it spurts through the openings in the pipes, it shatters the surrounding rock and the gas is released.
The process uses vast quantities of water and American regulators are only now coming to grips with the environmental impact.
The prize, though, is huge. Burning gas produces far lower carbon emissions than oil or coal. For governments struggling to hit pollution targets, that is important. So is security of supply. Countries are scrambling to get new supplies. Companies in Britain have spent billions on new LNG terminals on the Isle of Grain in Kent and at Milford Haven in Wales to make up for the North Sea’s decline. Croatia and Poland are also working on plans to build new port capacity. Construction on the £7 billion Nabucco pipeline from Turkey to Austria — meant to reduce Europe’s dependence on Russia — is set to begin next year.
Opinion remains divided over whether the American experience can be repeated. Researchers at Texas A&M University estimate world reserves could increase ninefold. Nick Grealy, an energy consultant who runs the No Hot Air website, said shale gas was a “millionaire ticket that can be shared by everybody”.
Critics say the prospects are far less promising. They argue that shale reserves rapidly peter out once they are accessed and that the variable nature of rock formations makes it difficult to always use the same technology, making it expensive and unpredictable.
Yet for some the debate is over. Charif Souki, the man behind the Sabine Pass terminal, has seen at first hand what shale gas means. He bet the future of the company he leads, Cheniere Energy, on America’s expected need to import gas by ship. Once a stock-market darling, the company has plunged deep into losses and seen 95% of its market value disappear.
At a conference in Europe last month, he offered a warning. He said: “Non-conventional reserves do exist and will be produced, it’s just a question of price.” He couldn’t believe the scepticism about shale gas expressed by energy executives in Europe. “Those are the same speeches I heard in the US,” he said.