Nothing exemplifies America’s low natural gas prices more than its flaring where takeaway infrastructure is inadequate. In the Permian basin in West Texas and New Mexico, from where most of the growth in crude production originates, associated natural gas is more often a disposal problem, like wastewater. Oil production has grown faster than expected, leaving gathering and processing systems struggling to keep up. Natural gas is hard to handle. Transportation by truck isn’t common because it has to be compressed, requiring specialized equipment. Mexican utility demand has grown more slowly than planned, and absent pipelines for transportation elsewhere in the U.S., the only remaining option is flaring.
A few years ago North Dakota faced a similar problem. Nighttime satellite photos revealed what looked like a new, brightly lit city in an uninhabited part of the country. Although regulators typically allow flaring for limited periods of six months or so, volumes of wasted gas continue to grow. By one estimate, the natural gas currently being flared in the Permian could power every home in Texas. The Texas Railroad Commission (RRC) regulates flaring permits. Oil drillers routinely request and receive permission for flaring where they can argue that oil can be profitably produced but there’s no take-away infrastructure for natural gas.
In theory, flaring requests can be challenged although they never are. Last week the RRC heard an application which raised an interesting question whose resolution could have a profound impact on such permits in the future. Exco Operating Company, LP sought a flaring permit on the basis of unavailable pipeline infrastructure. Unusually, it was protested by Williams Companies (WMB) who owns a nearby gathering and processing network. You can watch a video recording of the hearing here. Go to Item 9.
It turned out that a gathering pipeline was available to transport the associated natural gas, but Exco felt the economic terms were unfair. As the owner of the only available pipeline, Exco argued that WMB could charge an unfairly high price. Natural gas pricing at the Waha hub in Midland, TX has often been negative this year, meaning gas producers have to pay to offload their output. So it’s likely Exco was balking at pricing that reflected the paucity of options.
This led to an interesting dialogue between the RRC commissioners and representatives of Exco and WMB. The RRC has traditionally been charged with minimizing the waste of oil and gas. Natural gas flaring has been allowed because it’s necessary to access the crude oil. But Exco’s argument was one of economics. Implicit in their flaring request was that disposing of the natural gas would cost them more than its value.
As one commissioner noted, if flaring permits were based on economic hardship, there would be no need to have an approval process because companies would simply flare when that provided a better return than accessing a pipeline. And yet, the RRC is charged with regulating flaring, which means there must be some other, non-financial framework they’re intended to follow.
It was fascinating to watch both lawyers and the commissioners spar over this issue. WMB noted that the pipeline had been built at a cost of $1.5BN in order to gather gas from wells such as Exco’s, and said that Exco could have built their own takeaway pipeline early in the process but chose not to.
The RRC recognized the fundamental question raised by WMB’s challenge to Exco flaring application. It seems that however it’s resolved, it will set a precedent for future applications. Exco’s view would negate the need for the RRC to regulate flaring, since the decision would be a financial one for the company. WMB’s view would require drillers to access a gathering system where available even if pricing was unattractive.
The RRC decided to pass on the case at its first hearing, leaving it currently unresolved. When they meet to reconsider, the result could be far-reaching. If the RRC requires drillers to use available gathering and processing networks regardless of economics, as WMB wants, that would be good for pipeline investors.
Join us on Thursday, July 11th at 1pm EST for a webinar. We’ll discuss the pipeline sector’s growing Free Cash Flow. To register, please click here.
We are invested in WMB.
SL Advisors is the sub-advisor to the Catalyst MLP & Infrastructure Fund. To learn more about the Fund, please click here.
SL Advisors is also the advisor to an ETF (USAIETF.com).
The information provided is for informational purposes only and investors should determine for themselves whether a particular service, security or product is suitable for their investment needs. The information contained herein is not complete, may not be current, is subject to change, and is subject to, and qualified in its entirety by, the more complete disclosures, risk factors and other terms that are contained in the disclosure, prospectus, and offering. Certain information herein has been obtained from third party sources and, although believed to be reliable, has not been independently verified and its accuracy or completeness cannot be guaranteed. No representation is made with respect to the accuracy, completeness or timeliness of this information. Nothing provided on this site constitutes tax advice. Individuals should seek the advice of their own tax advisor for specific information regarding tax consequences of investments. Investments in securities entail risk and are not suitable for all investors. This site is not a recommendation nor an offer to sell (or solicitation of an offer to buy) securities in the United States or in any other jurisdiction.
References to indexes and benchmarks are hypothetical illustrations of aggregate returns and do not reflect the performance of any actual investment. Investors cannot invest in an index and do not reflect the deduction of the advisor’s fees or other trading expenses. There can be no assurance that current investments will be profitable. Actual realized returns will depend on, among other factors, the value of assets and market conditions at the time of disposition, any related transaction costs, and the timing of the purchase. Indexes and benchmarks may not directly correlate or only partially relate to portfolios managed by SL Advisors as they have different underlying investments and may use different strategies or have different objectives than portfolios managed by SL Advisors (e.g. The Alerian index is a group MLP securities in the oil and gas industries. Portfolios may not include the same investments that are included in the Alerian Index. The S & P Index does not directly relate to investment strategies managed by SL Advisers.)
This site may contain forward-looking statements relating to the objectives, opportunities, and the future performance of the U.S. market generally. Forward-looking statements may be identified by the use of such words as; “believe,” “expect,” “anticipate,” “should,” “planned,” “estimated,” “potential” and other similar terms. Examples of forward-looking statements include, but are not limited to, estimates with respect to financial condition, results of operations, and success or lack of success of any particular investment strategy. All are subject to various factors, including, but not limited to general and local economic conditions, changing levels of competition within certain industries and markets, changes in interest rates, changes in legislation or regulation, and other economic, competitive, governmental, regulatory and technological factors affecting a portfolio’s operations that could cause actual results to differ materially from projected results. Such statements are forward-looking in nature and involves a number of known and unknown risks, uncertainties and other factors, and accordingly, actual results may differ materially from those reflected or contemplated in such forward-looking statements. Prospective investors are cautioned not to place undue reliance on any forward-looking statements or examples. None of SL Advisors LLC or any of its affiliates or principals nor any other individual or entity assumes any obligation to update any forward-looking statements as a result of new information, subsequent events or any other circumstances. All statements made herein speak only as of the date that they were made. r
Certain hyperlinks or referenced websites on the Site, if any, are for your convenience and forward you to third parties’ websites, which generally are recognized by their top level domain name. Any descriptions of, references to, or links to other products, publications or services does not constitute an endorsement, authorization, sponsorship by or affiliation with SL Advisors LLC with respect to any linked site or its sponsor, unless expressly stated by SL Advisors LLC. Any such information, products or sites have not necessarily been reviewed by SL Advisors LLC and are provided or maintained by third parties over whom SL Advisors LLC exercise no control. SL Advisors LLC expressly disclaim any responsibility for the content, the accuracy of the information, and/or quality of products or services provided by or advertised on these third-party sites.
All investment strategies have the potential for profit or loss. Different types of investments involve varying degrees of risk, and there can be no assurance that any specific investment will be suitable or profitable for a client’s investment portfolio.
Past performance of the American Energy Independence Index is not indicative of future returns.