Tuesday, December 29, 2009

When Big Oil Buys the Gas Company

Earlier this week ExxonMobil, the world’s largest publicly traded oil and gas producer, announced that it had agreed to buy XTO Energy, the second-largest producer of natural gas in the US. ExxonMobil will acquire XTO for stock valued at $31 billion, making this the biggest oil and gas deal in four years.

This acquisition (and more like it) will have very significant impacts in at least three areas: energy prices; advances in natural gas innovation; and climate change legislation.

1. The Impact on Energy Prices

By acquiring the second-largest natural gas producer in the US, ExxonMobil will increase its ability to influence natural gas prices.

Prices for natural gas under long-term contracts are currently fairly close to prices for oil when measured on a cost per BTU basis. But prices for natural gas on the spot market are much lower -- often as much as 400% lower -- than prices for oil. The more natural gas that remains available on the spot market, the more likely it is that prices for natural gas under long-term contracts will come down.

When independent natural gas companies like XTO selling gas on the spot market, there is pressure on prices for natural gas to go down. Which makes gas a nice alternative to oil and coal. Which ultimately puts pressure on oil and coal prices.

ExxonMobil and other major oil companies that buy natural gas companies could influence prices by simply selling less natural gas on the spot market. The major oil companies have plenty of cash, so they could hold onto their natural gas inventories until the gap between gas and oil narrows. That is not good for consumers . . . or for the country.

2. The Impact on Natural Gas Innovation

Over the last decade, a handful of the nation’s small energy companies discovered huge amounts of natural gas in new fields stretching from Texas to Pennsylvania. XTO was one of these companies. It grew almost unnoticed into the nation’s second-largest gas producer by amassing a substantial portfolio of gas fields and developing expertise in the complex technology needed to extract the gas from shale beds.

If the major oil companies buy up these smaller, innovative companies that are making all the new natural gas discoveries, then who will pursue new natural gas technologies in the future?

Good question.

3. The Impact on Climate Change Legislation

Oil is one of the major contributors to carbon emissions worldwide. Gas is a much cleaner fuel.

The oil industry and its trade organization, the American Petroleum Institute, have vehemently opposed any aspect of climate change legislation that would raise the price of petroleum-based products. In contrast, the natural gas industry has supported many aspects of climate change legislation. Because natural gas has relatively low carbon emissions, any restriction on carbon emissions will give it a competitive advantage over oil and coal.

If the major oil companies buy up all the significant natural gas companies, then who will advocate for climate change legislation?

Another good question.

John Howley

Orlando, Florida


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